Charlson Ong's "Another Country" [4/4]

There are many kinds of love--some toxic and consuming, like drugs that induce dependence.  This work displays love in its most destructive yet beguiling form: passionate and without reason nor consideration.  The main character Arthur is a man whose longing for his home country is transformed into an uncontrollable misplaced love for Aurora.  There are the older generation of the Chinese embodied by Nancy and Arthur's father whose longing for their home country became a lifelong obsession slowly being emptied of hope.  As they cling on to the home that is slowly being transformed by cultural revolution, their devotion to their China becomes a tacit racism.

This piece by Filipino-Chinese writer Charlson Ong was taken from the book "A Tropical Winter's Tale and Other Stories".  The back cover of the book quotes the writer Ronald Baytan on Ong:
"There have been many Chinese writers writing in English... perhaps as early as the 1960s.  No one else has achieved the status attained by Ong.  In a way, it is his entry into the mainstream Philippine Literature that has forced the critics to acknowledge the presence of a dynamic and growing body of writings by the Chinese... Pain juxtaposed with a certain wry humor governs Ong's fictional worlds, and Chinese or not, the charaacters are endowed with an ironic and laughing voice that hits home only because their laughter is synonymous with grief."
"Another Country", according to the Acknowledgements contained in the book, won 3rd prize in the Carlos Palanca Awards in 1987 and 2nd prize in the Asiaweek Short Story Competition in 1988.  This story is set in 1987.  It is set in a Taiwan that is recovering from the massive earthquake of 14 November 1986.  

Despite the earthquake, under the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist) government, Taiwan is still thriving, developing rapidly as one of the four Asian economic tigers (with Hong Kong, South Korea, and Singapore).  In contrast, the Philippine economy is floundering after the corrupt Marcos regime and under the tumultuous beginnings of the first Aquino administration.  People Power had just happened and yet no change was felt by the Filipino people.  Hoping to get a piece of the development in the tiger economies, many Filipinos tried their luck in those countries.  Flor Contemplacion and Delia Maga are familiar names who were part of this exodus for financial gain.  On the other hand, mainland China is also in economic turmoil.  Economic reforms imposed by the Communist Party of China led to double-digit inflation rates, abuse of the system by well-connected people, and, slowly, to the 1989 Tianamen Square massacre.  Many mainland Chinese fled to other states for refuge or for a better life.  Perhaps because of its Chinese mestiza president, the Philippines was one of their destinations.  

There are so many layers to this story that can only be appreciated upon fully reading it.  It starts off a bit slow, but I do hope you enjoy it.  The entirety of the piece is well worth the read. - paris

"You're mad, Arthur!" Daryll was paler than a corpse.  "Listen, it's pretty expensive but I think it's time we visited those Brazilian pussies Lin Yaw's been telling us about.  It'll take some heat off you.  The cum's seeping into your brain!"

I tried being a picture of logic and sincerity, "I love her, Daryll. Say what you want."

"You came all the way to Taipei to get hitched to a huanna whore?!  You can have a nickel a dozen in Manila."

"You don't understand."

"Try me."

"This is my last chance."

"What kind of bullshit is this?  Look, I recommended you.  I'm responsible for you to your old man and you're not doing anything crazy.  You really want her, we'll find a way... cut this crap about love."

"If I let this pass, I'm lost forever."

"What!" Daryll couldn't have been more perplexed had he been told by Einstein's ghost that the world was unquestionably flat.  he paced about like a counsel for a hopelessly self-incriminating defendant.  "You're homesick, kid.  I'm older than you, man, listen to me.  I could smell it by that drama you had going last time.  But a broken glass is just like a few bucks; you do this and you're ruined.  I mean, forever!  Your old man is gonna come over and make mince meat of both of us."

"I've got my own life to live."

"Don't do this to spit him, asshole.  Don't be carrying whatever war you're having with your father over here.  You want to marry, go home and tell him point blank."

"I am home!  I found the woman I want and the city we'll live in."

Daryll poked a finger at my eyelids trying to look for the tell-tale signs.  "This is more serious than I thought, kid.  The woman plays hard-to-get for one night and you think she's the virgin reincarnate--our Lady of Taipei.  You want me to tell you about the little games we used to play?"

"Sex isn't everything."

"Oh?  We're not getting into that quilt stuff again, are we?"

"I can't make you understand, Daryll.  If you won't help I'll just have to do it alone."

"This is all part of her game, Arthur.  Wake up!"


"I'll take care of it, Arthur.  We''ll drop by her place tonight and have a nice chat, okay?"

Nancy Wang asked me to drop by her private suite early that morning.  The prospect of losing my job weighed heavily on me.  I'd never really cared about it until now.  I wanted to take care of Aurora.  I was enthralled by a strange notion that given enough affection in this foreign city, she could regain her betrayed charm.  And I was ready to plead with Nancy Wang, if need be.

I cam half an hour earlier than she'd expected.  Her door was open and I showed myself in.  It was Aurora's day off.  I found Mrs. Wang burning incense and some ghost money on her porch.  It was a surprise.  I'd heard she was Methodist, like Madam Chiang, and true enough there wasn't a single Buddhist or Taoist emblem in the whole of the Trib; there wasn't sign of any religion, in fact.  How could rational penny-pinching Nancy Wang be burning ghost money and for whom?

She was slightly startled by my presence.  Perhaps the need to explain her present task unbalanced her a bit, but a quick smile claimed the unadorned face.  The teeth didn't seem as perfect this early in the day but she was in a fine mood.  "Good morning, Arthur, I said ten-thirty."

"Sorry, I'll come back later."

"It's okay."  In pajamas she could actually pass for someone's grandmother.  "That is for my son, he would've been fifty years old today."

"Son?" The fact of her femininity dawned on me at once.

"Yes. We had to leave him behind in Shanghai, then.  He'd caught pneumonia and wouldn't have survived the sea.  My cousin promised to send him over as soon as he was better but I never heard from them again since coming to this island.  I still write letters to my relatives in the mainland inquiring about his whereabouts whenever I'm in L.A."  It's prohibited for people in Taiwan to have contact with the mainland.  "I'm still hoping he's alive.  Who knows?  Might be communist propaganda chief by now.  For years I punished myself for abandoning my son.  But we've got to learn to forgive ourselves if we decide to go on with life.  I visited a spirit medium once and heard my son's voice.  He was cold and hungry, pleading for me to feed his starved soul.  I've been doing this every year since."

Nancy Wang had told me so much about China and herself but this was the first time she'd mentioned her son and I sense she was leading somewhere.  "You remind me so much of him, Arthur."  I froze.  "To be honest, I'm really impressed by your progress.  You've learned so much about China in this short period and I was hoping you'd stay with us.  But..." A sadness underlined her lips.  "I fear your heart is not with us."  Some nasty devil inside me kept me from swallowing the pride that Sister Adelaide had so mastered.  I couldn't utter a sound.  Mrs. Wang produced a black folder.  "This is your contract.  If you should decide to stay on, it'll have to be for at least a year.  Once you sign, we'll apply for your work permit.  Take this with you and consider carefully.  See if you can truly find a home with us."

A load was lifted off my chest.  I'd dally a few days to give her the idea I had other options before turning in my signed contract.  Nancy fingered painfully a walnut lying on the dinner table.  For once she found speech difficult.  "All of us had to leave behind a greater part of ourselves when we left China."  I never thought I'd ever hear her admit having left that country.  "It's not easy surviving on so little.  You must forgive us.  We did things better left unsaid.  What kept us going, what kept your father going is the dream of returning home someday, a dream we hope to pass on to our children.  If you now call it a lie, so be it."  I made a move to respond but she silenced me with a stiff palm.  "It might have been our lasting legacy.  but, that is how old heads always feel.  We are wrong of course.  It is quite enough we've raised you.  You must carry on in your own way."  A ray of sun slipped through the mist beclouding her features.  I saw her at last without pomp and purpose which defended her past against progress and forgetfulness.  For a while I seemed within th eradius of invulnerability emanating from the woman and would've wanted to remain there forever.  But the walnet proved unrelenting.  Nancy finally stood up and showed me to the door.  "Consider carefully," she whispered and then from some deep reservoir of pain she kept sealed with the massiveness of body and spirit--"you will always be our children, if not our countrymen."  I trudged silently to the elevator letting her words sink in and she suddenly remembered--"I told Aurora she can move in day after tomorrow."

"Oh?  That's good, very good," I quipped.  "She might not need to, after all."

That night Daryll and I decided to walk the four blocks to Aurora's place at the East district to save on cab fare.  It was the first of December and temperatures had dropped to 120Celsius.  I put on the overcoat I'd bought earlier, trying to recall both T.S.Eliot and Jack-the-Ripper.  I felt refreshed.  For the first time since the quake, pain seemed to have lifted from the streets.  Taipei was recovering from the tragedy a million light years away.

Daryll urged me to wait by the corridor as he rang the doorbell.  I wasn't sure what he was up to but his games were rendered irrelevant by my conviction.  The door opened slightly and Daryll was taking a long while talking to someone.  I felt disconcerted.  "What's going on?"

He waved me over, his face twitching.  "Maybe it wasn;t such a good idea after all."  Something was eating him.

"Let's get this settled."  I barked.

"All right."  Daryll led me inside and there he was--Sgt. Lin Yaw, stark naked, his nascent paunch protruding like a malignancy with only a slight towel wrapped around his waist.  Lin Yaw was the epitome of satiation; he raised a thick thumb in approval and pointed his fat chin towards Aurora's room.  She was wrapped in a light blue towel.  Her face fell when she saw us but quickly repaired itself.  "Hi," she whispered and nearly smiled.  Something steely ripped through my rectum.  An odd mix of fear and loathing clogged my windpipe, the sickish wonder that grips a child at his initial encounter with death--the very first cockroach one crushes out of sheer delight--the recognition of evil.

"What is this?"  My tongue had never been so tight.  I glared at Aurora's near nakedness; our eyes met and she dropped her eyes to her fingers.  And just as I thought she'd raise her manicured fingers to the dim, Aurora cupped her hands to her mouth and rushed for the bathroom.

Daryll wrapped his arms around my sunken shoulders.  "All right, kid, she's all yours for the night but tomorrow, our friend Lin is moving in."  Daryll smelled of decay.

"You son of a bitch.  You sick animal!"  I swung and caught him on the nose.  Daryll staggered and I leapt on him like a wounded prey.

"Stop this, Arthur!  I don't want to hurt you!  Listen, no one forced her.  She agreed to this." Daryll was a good college wrestles but now I arm-locked him and tore at his neck.  His shot-putter's arm was suddenly a piece of poor meat which I bit into, drawing the stink of fresh blood.  Daryll screamed; he freed an arm and snapped my chin with an uppercut.  I countered with an overhand right, busting his eyebrows, turning his face into bloody protoplasm.  Lin Yaw grabbed me with his massive arms and tore me away.  I struggled free but he pulled his service revolver at me.

"Okay, cool it.  Settle down."

I dropped to my knees and wept.  Daryll struggled to his feet.  "You mad dog!  I don't know how we're related but you were still family."  It sounded like a curse.  "And I had to do something."

"Keep your fucking favors!" I yelled.

"I don't ever want to see you anymore.  Rot in hell!"  Daryll shot back, throwing something solid at me as he left.

Aurora returned to the battle scene in a printed blouse.  A sourness gripped her mouth as she saw the mess.  "How dare you!  At least respect my place."

"You don't have to do this.  You don't have to be afraid of anyone.  I can take care of you!"  I bellowed in Tagalog.  And Lin Yaw, sensing he didn't understand half the proceedings, locked himself up in the bathroom.  I reached for Aurora's hand but she drew back.

"You don't understand, do you, bata (child)," she quipped.  She must have been six years my senior but the onslaught of shock, shame, and anger restored the adolescent vigor and innocence of her eyes.  "Get out of my life, please."  She was pleading for her life.  I turned away and fled as I'd done the other night.  I ran for blocks without seeing a single neon sign as dried blood turned stale on my lips.  Darkness was total and irredeemable.  Taipei in dreamless sleep.  Or had there been a fatal aftershock while we were inside Aurora's place?  Perhaps the ground had opened up and swallowed the whole city; the entire half of planet earth.  Had the world actually ended while the four of us played out our charade?  Were we the lone survivors?  Ub tge distance I could hear rushing footsteps slapping the pavement.  I screamed for Daryll but the air was too thin to carry voices.  I knew he was headed for another city, another country.

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