We’re waiting for Mr. Hou, the owner of our school and this building, to arrive. Adam’s striking a soccer ball with his right foot, aiming at meat-eating cockroaches that scuttle over unidentified particles on our red tile floor. A solitary, insolent cockroach clings to the bathroom door, one tenacious limb gripping a groove in the woodwork. With his toe, Adam takes a violent stab at the ball, which flies at the door, squashing the cockroach’s leg, leaving it dangling. The ball bounces away, but Adam remains where he is. Apparently he’s waiting for me to fetch it. Which I do, returning the ball with an insouciance that hopefully preserves some of my dignity. In our two months together, although I haven’t witnessed hostility, Adam has carried himself with a belligerent ferocity that reminds me of the glass-breaking thug in the movie Trainspotting.
Mr. Hou calls our names from the other side of the screen door. “You guys have a new housemate,” he says with a lisp. His hair has been dyed black, which looks strange considering that he’s over seventy and his face is wrinkled. He was probably attractive in his younger years. “No more funny business. No more drugs.”
“Nobody was using drugs. Iggie and Steve just seemed like they were on something,” says Adam.
“I like you Adam, but this is your last chance. No more hiring. No more training. If this doesn’t work, I’m selling the franchise and I’m firing everyone. I’m going to start a kindergarten,” Mr. Hou says.
“You’re just busting my nuts,” Adam says. “You won’t fire us.”
“I’m not busting your balls. I’ve had enough. You’d better make him feel welcome. He’s getting his bags from the taxi. He’s North American, too. He’s a nice guy like you, John,” he says, pointing in my direction. “No more teachers from England.”
“I’m English,” says Adam.
“You English are all drunks, drug abusers and sodomizers. I’m tired of you,” Mr. Hou says. “Now behave. Samuel’s here.”
The new guy has a blond beard, is pear-shaped like me, but much taller and about thirty pounds heavier. He’s standing on the other side of the screen door, his suitcases at his side, an expression on his face both dopey and abstractly intelligent. He’s most likely heard everything. I don’t know what he makes of it.
Adam and I are friends. Sort of. He’s introduced me to his mates, all from some small district outside London. They’re usually wasted on either ecstasy or booze. Except Adam. He’s stayed away from the heavy drugs so far. He’s also a very dedicated teacher, so for this reason Hou has kept him on for five years—the last two as Academic Director. He plays SimCity 4 on the computer and tells me about all the Chinese women he’s shagged. I listen to him attentively. I prepare my English lessons. This is what I do. It’s simple and it’s enough. I am happy.
But I can remember a time when I wasn’t—happy, that is. In Toronto I was a mope. It doesn’t matter why. When you’re happy, especially after a long period of misery, you have two thoughts: why so miserable in the past? You also doubt whether things could get much better and sense that, in fact, they can only get worse.
Why am I here? I stumbled upon this advertisement in the Toronto daily Metro:
Teachers in Taipei, Taiwan needed!
Do you want to meet friends? Visit a foreign country? Be part of an exciting organization that pays well and that will provide on the job training? Call (416) 975 0092.
I believe in entropy. There’s a set amount of energy in any contained area. By this I’m referring to Taipei or maybe even our school. Perhaps even this apartment. The addition of a new variable can cause the entire system to become a discordant flux. The new guy’s threatening to upset the dynamic. You see, this is at the heart of my current anxieties. I’m aware of how things are with three people. Usually one person is the object of ridicule, even if it’s subtle. With three people, someone is always pushed to the margins. I’ll end up working hard to counterbalance Adam’s Machiavellian tendencies. Samuel will quit or have a mental breakdown and then what are we going to do?
“If you have any problems, Samuel. Like if this guy here is keeping you up at night.” Hou is pointing at Adam. “You’ll let me know, okay?” Mr. Hou says. “Call me anytime. I’ll let you gentlemen acquaint yourselves.” He says this last part with one foot out the door.
“Hi, I’m John,” I say.
“Hi. I’m Samuel.” The new guy wraps his massive purple hand around mine, rigorously pumps, and then does the same to Adam. He gives us a toothy smile.
“I’m Adam. Do you mind if I don’t call you Samuel?” Adam says. “I think I’ll call you America, instead.”
Samuel is wearing flip-flops and he’s carrying a bag of noodles in a Styrofoam bowl. “I guess I don’t care. I’m a little hungry,” he says sitting down to eat. “There wasn’t enough on the plane.”
“Go right ahead and eat, America,” says Adam.
Samuel pulls chopsticks from his backpack. He pinches the noodles with resolve but they slither off the wooden chopsticks and land on his lap. Eventually he lifts the bowl oafishly with his hands and swallows a mouthful. After he’s finished he stuffs the chopsticks into his pants.
“Aren’t you going to wipe off the juice?” I say.
Samuel smiles. “Why are there clothes all over the place?” He’s pointing to Adam’s briefs, which are hanging on the computer monitor.
“But why?” says Samuel.
“Because it’s humid.It often rains in Taipei,” says Adam.
I shrug. Adam believes that mildew grows on his T-shirts and socks and his clothes rot in his drawer, so he hangs them all over our apartment. I open the fridge and I’m confronted with his underwear. I have to move his sweater to watch TV. I brush aside his socks whenever I’m getting a glass from the cupboard. This is annoying but I don’t complain. Adam doesn’t respond well to constructive criticism.
Samuel sits down at a table, takes a calligraphy set from his backpack and practices writing Chinese characters. “I’d like to get a lot of studying done while I’m here,” he says. “I studied Mandarin while I was at the University of Colorado.”
“This is brilliant,” Adam says. He’s picking at his toenails with his fingers. He works at a sizeable clipping and eventually tears it off, then gets to his feet. “You see, we’re surrounded by Chinese culture but in our very midst we get a little of America.” With incisors bared, he hunches over Samuel. His gold chain hangs in Samuel’s face. “Are you writing actual characters? You don’t act like people in Hollywood, do you America? You think you’re actually Taiwanese.”
After an hour Samuel drops his pen and puts away the calligraphy paper. He mumbles something about third down and five. He scans the sports section of a USA Today. He’s aware that I’m watching him. He puts the paper in his backpack.
“Are you coming to the pub?” Adam says. “It’s your first night in town. Let’s get you initiated.”
“I’m suffering from jet lag,” Samuel says. “I won’t be much fun.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be enough fun for the three of us,” Adam says.
What I love about being in Taipei is that I’m part of something—how after evening classes we sit in the park on the benches, next to the palm trees, someone buying a bag full of Taiwan beer, sometimes smoking weed even though signs at the airport read: Anyone caught with illegal drugs will be executed. Still full of beans because we’ve just finished class, the last fifteen minutes on the topic of differences, always differences, those between us and them; dojiang versus milk; the number four versus thirteen; senior homes versus children taking care of their elderly parents; how second-hand furniture is sometimes tasteful in the U.K., but how here it is taboo; fat North American rumps versus their flat Asian counterparts (my students laughing then, pointing at mine as evidence). Our company, Hou’s English School, is comprised of three Taiwanese secretaries, three foreign-born male teachers, and one frumpy woman from Manchester, who lives in Hou’s other apartment with Hou’s niece. She’s lots of fun because we have no desire to sleep with her. Expats who teach at the local schools in Taipei are young men in their twenties from the U.S., Canada or the U.K., sometimes South Africa or New Zealand—a few like Adam having stayed too long and gone batty as a result. After class we climb on scooters and go to the Titanic Pub, if lucky with a secretary in tow, practically piggybacking, as we weave around cars at the traffic lights, riding in formation.
Samuel’s obviously tired but he’s making the trip with us. He’s riding with Adam, on the back of his motorcycle. At the Titanic Pub we greet the other teachers. But we present a united front. This gives me pride, not the nationalistic variety, but one that has developed out of an awareness that we work at Hou’s English School, the highest paying, most prestigious bushiban in the country. Knowing that I make twice as much as some of the other misguided ex-pats, I walk into the pub with a swagger. Our contract is that much better because, unlike other foreign teachers, we don’t have to pay rent. I love teaching. I put ample time into my lesson plans. Teachers wear ties at Hou’s English School—well, all but Adam, who says he’s never given a fuck about proper work attire. You’d have thought others would have followed his lead—he is after all our Academic Director. At Hou’s English School we also have to have graduated from university. Adam, of course, hasn’t, but he’s done a brilliant job of forging a degree from Cambridge—has, as a matter of limited public knowledge, paid for the transcripts off the Internet.
Samuel, now snug on a bench between two Englishmen, one of them Adam, is waiting his turn at darts, looking as if he’d rather be practicing his characters.
“He was answering me just using phrases,” says Adam. “I asked him to answer in complete sentences. I said, ‘When did you eat dinner today, Guo?’ He said, ‘After I came home from school.’ I told the little tosser to give me the entire thing, not just the first phrase.”
“Actually,” Samuel interrupts, “it’s a fragment.”
“What’d you say, America?”
“It’s a fragment. Actually a subordinate clause to be exact. An adverb clause. Time clause to be even more precise.” Samuel’s glasses are wiggling now. “Phrases lack a subject or a verb—‘After I came home from school,’ has both.”
“Are you being wise?”
“Are you trying to teach me English? Five hundred years ago, Shakespeare was doing his thing. You were speaking Apache or some kind of foolishness. Who the fuck are you to teach me the Queen’s tongue?”
I take the dart from Adam. He’d been twirling it in his hand, and was poised to jam it in Samuel’s ear. “Look Samuel,” I say. “It’s a phrase. You’re wrong. Cut it out, man.”
Clearly, Samuel, his elephant-sized eyes watery, hasn’t seen Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast because he says, “Check the Betty Azar, the blue textbook, one of the later chapters, I think.” At least he isn’t making eye contact—never make eye contact, and turn your back first chance—techniques of self-preservation that have gotten me this far.
“Yeah, I’ll check the fucking Betty Azar,” says Adam. This is lame, especially since Samuel, who is paying his tab at the bar, hasn’t heard him.
Adam and I stumble home at two o’clock. Adam, hand on crotch, runs to the balcony to relieve himself. Samuel has placed a Buddhist shrine on the mantel piece under Adam’s Union Jack. Incense burns directly under it. I rush over and snuff it out with my sleeve. I upend the shrine, cradle it in my biceps, and take it to Samuel’s room, where he’s studying Chinese characters. “This isn’t the best thing to be near Adam’s flag,” I say.
“You don’t have to take it down,” he says.
“Yeah, I probably should.”
I go out to check on Adam. He’s singing the Star Spangled Banner and peeing over the balcony. This is making a lot of noise because the awning below is tinny. I sing with him and try to match his volume but my voice lacks conviction. The concrete buildings in direct view are all drably built. They’re also coloured a soot-black because the wind blows pollution onto them. Even still, they fascinate me. Who is on the other side?
Samuel joins us on the balcony.
“Just takin’ the piss, America. Hope you take no offense.” A cat is creeping onto the flat part of our roof. “Look America, I’m willing to concede that your culture—that is, Hollywood—has influenced the world more than anything coming out of the UK. Isn’t there anything you want to tell us about your mates or way of life back home? You’re such a mystery, America. What’s the U.S. of A. all about anyway? Why don’t you give us a feel for America?”
“I need to get some sleep,” Samuel says. He goes back to his room.
“How about a feel for America,” Adam slurs.
Five minutes before class, I’m writing on my white board. A desk at the other end of the room is askew so I straighten it. From back here I see that the students won’t be able to read the past participles, written in faint green, on the white board. I erase them, careful not to take out any of the other colors. I’m printing them in blue now. Frantically, because I don’t have a lot of time, but it also needs to be neat. If not, I’ll have to start over again. Some of my intermediate students are streaming into the room. I’m looking over my shoulder. “Winny,” I say. “You’re with Ricky.” They’re both single parents in their forties. Why not match-make? “Jupiter, you’re with Wynona.” I’ve noticed Jupiter has been sitting with Greta, who’s younger too and they’ve been speaking too much Chinese lately. Wynona’s in her 60s and loves to learn. 7:00 now. I can’t wait for anyone else. If they’re late, though, that’s okay. “How are you? Nice day? Let’s start with the warmer. Ask the questions. English, Jupiter, English. Full sentences, Joanna. We’re doing the present perfect. Ask the first in the present perfect and the second question in past tense. Use the past participles. The constructions are on the board. It’s going to be a great evening. I’m really excited,” I say. I say this every night. The Chinese have a smell, probably sweat—tofu and chilies secreted through their skin—that I can’t get enough of. I’d like to bottle it and sprinkle it throughout our apartment. When my tiny classroom fills up with enough people, the scent’s there within a few minutes. When everyone files out at the end of class I sit in my chair and inhale.
There’s some yelling in the hallway that I’m ignoring now because everything’s going well and because I get to teach the present perfect tonight—a grammar lesson with some interesting role-plays. The office role-play. The son/ daughter coming home late at night role-play. Plus, my tape-recorder’s all set. They will listen to the South African accent tonight. I have memorized a new line in Chinese and I’m going to pounce on the first opportunity in class to use it. Surprise them a little. Someone’s yelling in the hallway. It’s just barely audible above the din of my class—my student’s voices are reaching a crescendo now. “Have you been to Yan Ming Shan?” “Yes I have.” “When did you go?” “I went in June.” I always wait for the energy in the classroom to peak before I move on. This keeps the pace moving. More noise outside. I open my door and stick my head in the hall.
Adam is there. His knee is propping Samuel’s door open.
“Why are you yelling?” I ask.
“His board isn’t ready. Plus, he’s insisting on groups of six. This is fucking unacceptable. Pairs or groups of three. He’s got to comply or this is going to be a serious fucking issue.” Adam looks warily in my direction. “Oi. There’s ash from incense all over the Union Jack. Did you know about this?”
Adam has turned toward Samuel, who is out of my line of sight. I can feel his large presence on the other side of the door. “I’d like to see you after class,” he says. Less loudly now.
I return to my room. Mr. Hou is by the potted fern in the corner, looking through the green leaves, which is creepy. He’s silently judging what has just transpired.
“Have you ever taught kindergarten?” He says this to me conspiratorially.
Adam and I are on our balcony. He’s Hawkeye Pierce to my Honeycutt. Our gaudy Hawaiian shirts are a testament to this. His idea, not mine. “What do you think of America?” Adam says.
“He’s a nice guy.”
“I think he’s a fucking tosser.”
“Oh God,” I say. “Could you give him a chance?”
“Are you siding with your fellow American?”
“I don’t care about any of that, Adam. I think he’s a nice guy. Give him a chance. He’s a little different. There’s no crime in that.”
Samuel’s in front of a vegetable market on the ground floor of our building. Adam and I are looking down at him from our second floor balcony. Adam says that he could easily spit on the broccoli—the shop owner would think it was drizzle from the three-day shower that just ended. The owner is hosing down the area in front of his shop. A stream of slop, the color of miso soup, is flowing under the rickety chair that Samuel’s sitting on, sloshing against the sides of his Converse shoes. He gets up because a stocky man in a soiled white T-shirt is carrying a crate full of pears under the awning. The corner of the crate nicks Samuel’s large head. He rubs his scalp and checks to see if there’s blood on his hand.
“America is mixing with the Taiwanese,” Adam says. “Just listen.”
Samuel is slumping in his seat, loosely holding a Mah Jong set at his side. “Wo ke yi gen nimen lian xi?” Each syllable leaks out of his mouth. His eyes are pleading.
“I’m sorry. I have no idea what you’re saying. Do you know how to play?” says an old man, a fisherman’s cap screwed tightly to his head.
“Wo yao gen nimen lian xi wode Zhongwen,” Samuel says, speaking in an effortfully deliberate manner—trying to nail each of the four tones and when he can’t, he starts the sentence all over again, which makes Adam snicker.
“It’s okay. I speak perfect English,” says the old man.
Samuel grabs a leg of the man’s chair and spins it so they’re facing each other. He’s that oversized kid in school who doesn’t realize how strong he is. “Wo yao lian xi wode Zhongwen.”
“That big fuckwit doesn’t know the first thing about Mandarin,” says Adam, whose own Chinese, he always boasts, was learned the proper way—by shagging as many Taiwanese women as possible.
The elderly Chinese man is saying something to his friends. Samuel adjusts his voice a few decibels louder and repeats himself. They are speaking at the same time, Samuel’s face reddening to a shade of mango. He inches his chair closer and moves his arms in supplication. The elderly man is bobbing up and down, as if he’s barking orders.
“Let it go,” calls Adam. He’s on his tiptoes and all of his weight is leaning against the flimsy rail. If I stand next to him we’ll surely plummet onto the mah-jong board.
“Let the man save face, America,” he says.
Samuel glances up. But Adam isn’t at the forefront of his consciousness. He’s waving his arms at the elderly man, who by now has completely shut down. He’s crossed his arms and is repeating, “I can’t understand you.”
“Drop it, America,” Adam calls. “Let the man be.”
Samuel looks up at us again.
“Maybe you should just let him sort this out,” I say. I pull Adam away from the rail.
“What the fuck? Why? He’s tormenting the old guy.” He looks at me strangely.
The phone is mercifully ringing.
“Go get the fucking phone, John,” he says.
I let go of Adam’s arm. “Just leave him alone,” I say rather pathetically. I get up from the rusty beach chair and get the phone.
“Can I speak to Samuel?”
“Actually, he’s not here. He’ll be in soon. Can I take a message?”
“It’s Samuel’s father. Can you write this down? He’ll understand. Tell him we’re going to stick it to them on Sunday. Nobody can stop our blitz. Our boy’s going to pick apart their defence.”
I write this down on a piece of paper. Adam’s looking over my shoulder. “What’s that about?”
“I have no idea. Samuel’s father wants Samuel to call him before some game on Sunday.”
Samuel’s in the apartment now, sweating profusely. He takes off his shoes and from two yards away I can smell his socks.
“Your father gave John a bizarre message,” Adam says.
I give it to Samuel. “Your dad laughed like it was the funniest thing in the world—though I don’t see what’s so funny. Did I mess up the message?”
“No, you did just fine,” Samuel says.
Adam has been asking me for a long time to play indoor soccer with him. I always tell him that I’m not fond of the game. Truth is, there’s a glint in Adam’s eye, full of malice, which has made me reluctant.
After receiving the cryptic message from his father, Samuel can’t concentrate on writing characters, so they arrange the sofa in a way that it serves as a goal and Adam kicks balls at him. Although Adam is tiny, he strikes the ball hard. Some of the shots bounce off Samuel’s shoulder and stomach. The large man adroitly punches some of the shots back to Adam.
“You want to see what England is all about? We’re about football. Not the American kind though.”
Adam drills a shot at his head. Samuel catches it and stands there, placid, refusing to return the ball. At any moment Adam’s likely to end the standoff. To hammer the ball from Samuel’s clutch with his fist—perhaps a brief struggle, blood gushing from Samuel’s nose, me mopping it up, stroking his head, telling him that this is just Adam’s way.
I act quickly—put on my scooter helmet, and am in front of Samuel, asking him to relinquish the ball so that I can relieve him in net. Thank the Lord Buddha he hands it over. I’ll explain to my students that the bruises on my forearms are from a spill on my scooter.
Samuel comes home the next morning after class with a forlorn look and a bag full of blue cans of Taiwan beer. “Guess where I was last night?”
His routine is to pull out his calligraphy set and study quietly in the corner of the room, his heavy breathing alone to remind us of his presence. Today, though, he slumps on the sofa. He’s waiting for one of us to say something.
“I’ve no idea,” I say.
“Not a clue, America,” says Adam.
“I had a really bad night. I thought Fei and I were going to a karaoke.”
“Where did you go?” says Adam.
“There were all these women. But there weren’t any screens for the words, so I don’t know. They didn’t touch me or anything but they didn’t look right. They had on lots of perfume. I was choking. I know it wasn’t karaoke because there was dirt everywhere. Most KTVs are clean, right?”
“I’ve been in some dodgy KTVs,” says Adam.
“Fei was chewing betel nut. He straddled this one girl and they didn’t ask me at first for money for the beer I drank, which made me wonder. I gave them some money, and this one girl told me it wasn’t enough so I gave her some more and then I gave this other girl a lot of money and then I got out of there.”
“I’m surprised, America,” Adam says. “I thought you’d want to experience everything Chinese.”
Samuel sighs. “This would never happen in Colorado.”
He comes out of his room later. He’s stuffed his shirt with small pillows around the shoulders, the one on his right side larger and lumpier than the other. He walks around the rest of the day that way.
“What’s with the pillows, buddy?” I say.
“I’m getting ready for tonight. What are you doing around two o’clock tonight?”
“Sleeping. What’s tonight?”
“Nothing.” He shuffles to his room.
“Hey Samuel. Can I talk with you for a second?”
He looks at me with his big, sleepy eyes. “What’s up, John?”
“It’s just,” I say, “that this can be such a nice place if there’s some equilibrium. Do you know what I mean? Maybe if you just tried to piss him off less we could make this work. The apartment. The school. Do you agree?”
“Let me think about it,” Samuel says. He walks into his room. The walls are so thin that I can hear the thud of his body landing on his mattress.
It’s three o’clock. I’m awake because Samuel is talking loudly in the living room. I come out in my underwear. He’s sitting on the sofa watching television. Blue Taiwan beer cans surround his chair.
“Why are you so agitated?”
“Tonight I celebrate. This is the most important day of the year. There’s John Elway.” He points to the television, then leans over and throws up on the floor. “I’m gonna clean that up later.” He burps. “I’m from Colorado. We’ve got some of the best linebackers in the country. That’s why I never made first team.”
“Look, maybe you should keep it down. You don’t want to wake up Adam.”
Samuel stands, swaying, and slaps me on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about him. Why do you worry so much about him? Try to tackle me.” In a stupor, he bumps into me and falls on a lamp.
Adam’s in the room now. He looks jarringly harmless in his skin-tight T-shirt and briefs. “What the fuck?” he says.
“It’s nothing, Adam. I’ll take care of it. You go back to sleep.” I’m pushing him toward his room.
He watches the TV for a few seconds and says, “Those blokes wear tight pants.”
Adam and I are unsure what to do. Neither of us is drunk. We each have an early morning business class, but that isn’t for a few hours. We take a beer from the plastic bag at Samuel’s feet. “Now this is interesting,” Adam says. “Looks like we got Celine Dion and Mick Jagger doing a duet together. I had no idea this was part of the show.”
At 4 o’clock a.m. Samuel babbles, “Did you see that catch? That catch was amazing. I want to do it.”
He picks up the soccer ball, pitches it to me and says, “Throw the ball to me. Throw it to me right here.”
His hands are in front of his chest, in catching position.
I throw it to him.
“See, this is how you catch a ball. With your fingers!” He wipes yellow vomit from his shirt. “Let’s do the entire thing after huddle.”
He turns around, bends at his waist and places the ball on the floor between his tree trunk sized legs.
“Put your hands under my ass, Adam.”
“Now hold on a second,” Adam says.
Samuel holds the ball, which still rests on the floor, with two hands. His face pokes at us between his knees. With his face upside down, the muscles in his face droop. He affects a ninny British accent. “Come on, Adam. I’m going to go long. You want to see America. You want to get a feel for America. Now put your hands under my ass.”
“I think I’ve seen enough.” Adam gets up and walks past us. Samuel stands up and grabs Adam’s wrist. He
tugs lightly and Adam loses his balance, almost falling. “We’re good, right, Adam?” he says.
“What do you mean?”
He’s still holding on to Adam’s wrist. “We’re good… I hope. No more of this, right?”
Adam doesn’t say anything. He retreats to his room and shuts the door.
Samuel takes down a pair of Adam’s mildewy sweat pants from the curtain rod. He gets down on his knees and mops up the stringy vomit on the floor. I grab a Fred Perry shirt and help him wipe it up.
“These are fried noodles, right?”
I laugh and Samuel laughs, his large shoulders gently shaking. I get Adam’s Union Jack, tear it from the wall—its fabric lighter than I’d imagined—and crouch down to put it on the quickly drying puddle of vomit. Samuel grabs my wrist. He has a powerful grip. “Why are you doing that? You’re just going to make him angry,” which is a valid point. He picks me up by the shoulders, “We’ve got it a good thing here. You don’t want to mess it up, do you? Put this in the washing machine.” He points to Adam’s vomit-soaked, moldy clothes. He resumes watching the game.
Lying in my bed, my mind is serene. I can’t sleep though. Samuel’s yelling obscenities. I guess the Broncos are losing.