2009 Op-ed Columns
U.S. Politics - 2008 Elections
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first meeting such deep emotion
Would that it had been later
Waving goodbye to white clouds above
Memories carried to shriveled old age
An Li Tsun,
Mother was dying in childbirth when a sudden tropical
storm capsized father’s fishing boat. Father couldn’t swim; he drowned flailing
against the mandate of heaven. Ko-sa was left with a bicycle and a picture of
grandparents who died before he was born. They were posed rigidly in rosewood
chairs for the ancestral portrait.
Reluctant relatives took him in and
did what they must, fearing the wrath of the gods. Uncle Su and Aunt Mei-ling
already had six children they couldn’t afford. They all suppressed a
never-ending struggle for space and food in a one room shack cobbled from slats
torn off shipping crates; nine of them under a leaky roof held together by tar
paper pulled over splintered beams. A single chicken wire window, no more than
a slit, opened on to a world of similar hovels crowding the rutted lane like
water buffalo in a fetid pond. Inside, the Su family ate and slept and did
other things on straw mats, bodies of children and adults rubbing together and
sharing sweat during sticky oppressive nights in the tiny farming village on the
coast. Ko-sa was the first to be squeezed off the sleeping mats, the last to be
offered rice. He took refuge from family battles and stifling closeness
outside, behind the banyan tree just across the lane.
Ko-sa skipped along the narrow path
between flooded rice paddies. The track was hardly wider than his calloused
feet, a thin wall of compacted dirt separating plots of green stalks. He made
his way along the borders of the mud and sweat lives of perennially drained and
hungry families of tenant farmers. Taking the short cut along paths that
offered a dunk in the mud for a misstep was a kind of dance, an escape from
grimy toil in the paddy. He never fell in.
Minutes later he reached his
destination – his banyan tree. He paid his respects and stretched out between
its roots as if cradled in the arms of his mother, to daydream and observe. He
had been watching and listening from behind the tree for nearly six years, ever
since he came to live with the Su’s at the age of nine. Nobody cared any more
than they would have if his thin frame and curious face had been part of the
His reverie was broken by another
argument. “No. Don’t. Please don’t.” Aunt Mei-ling pleaded, almost a wail.
Flimsy wall slats did little to hold back the spread of anguish through the
village. “You cannot do that. Bai-tok. I beg you.”
Ko-sa shivered, as if he could feel
her knees trembling on the frayed tatami mat that was their only luxury.
“Don’t tell me what not to do.”
Su Ong Mei-ling covered her ears, as
if that would somehow dispel a husband’s rant that was more exhausting than
bending over from the waist all day long to plant each tender rice shoot in the
mud by her bare toes – harder to take than bending over for him in stealth at
night. “We can manage. Ko-sa is our family. My brother’s blood,” she pleaded.
“Your family,” growled Su. “Do you
think I can have one of my sons do this?”
The grizzled raw wire-muscled man
that Ko-sa called gu-jang – father’s sister’s husband – stalked outside
and squatted on the large flat rock that was his retreat from the turmoil
inside. He nursed a cigarette until it burned his lips. When Ko-sa saw him
spit out the butt, he slipped out from behind the banyan tree, pretending he was
just coming back from the paddy. He bowed his head in respectful greeting,
hoping uncle would allow him to pass unmolested.
Getting stopped at the rock by Uncle
Su bode ill. Ko-sa would never forget the day after he graduated first in his
primary school class with the special prize for reading. “Your schooling is
over,” was Uncle’s only comment on the ceremony.
“Baitok. I want to go to
Reading doesn’t make rice.”
Uncle let loose a swarm of curses that stung like wasps.
Ko-sa’s temerity simmered in his
uncle’s kettle of anger. Next day Uncle stopped him at the rock. “You dare to
argue.” He slapped him and walked off.
Ko-sa’s teacher tried to help, but
the hapless schoolmaster had less than a minute to persuade the angry farmer.
Su cut him off in mid-sentence. “The government gives you food to eat. We grow
it. For you, for the landlord. We get the husks if there’s anything left.
Ko-sa stays in the fields.”
Perched on the rock, Uncle Su still
had smoke to comfort his lungs. He let Ko-sa pass without a word. After he
smoked another cigarette he yelled for his nephew to come out of the shack.
Ko-sa squatted in front of his
uncle. His long thin arms hung over knobby knees, his delicate fingers touched
the ground. Eyes on the hard dirt, he anticipated a harangue that he was
useless in the fields. He would resist that accusation with determined silence,
obeisance hiding a mind swirling with hard truth: The cousins are stronger only
because they get more rice.
Schoolmates had asked how such a
small skinny body could hold up such a big head. They nicknamed him yueh
liang lian, moon face.
But I can read and my cousins can’t.
Ko-sa whispered to himself and waited. Uncle Su spat phlegm beyond the rock.
“You need a new bike, don’t you?”
Ko-sa pursed his lips and stared at
an ant crossing close to his left big toe. If he said yes, Uncle Su would call
him greedy. Even though the older cousins had long since dispossessed him of
“Here’s how to get one.”
Ko-sa followed his uncle’s fingers as
he drew in the dirt. Roads that he didn’t know. A big city called
Tainan. A distance much
farther than he had ever been along the dirt track leading out of the village.
“We go the first night of the full moon, very early so we can get back the same
day,” said Uncle Su.
Ten nights later the two of them mounted their bikes and
set out a little after three in the morning. It was the first time in months
that Ko-sa had been on a bicycle, a wobbly start. He straightened his legs,
pedaling past banyan trees planted by unknown ancestors as a windbreak to
protect the fields. He squinted to see beyond the night, and caught his front
wheel in a rut. The handlebar jabbed him in the gut as he fell. He rolled over
on the hard dirt, clutching at the pain.
Uncle cursed. “You all right?”
“Not hurt,” said Ko-sa. He stifled a
groan and picked himself up.
“Watch where you’re going.”
Bicycles close together and souls far
apart, uncle and nephew rode in silence under the moonlight.
The sun was already up when Ko-sa and
Uncle Su reached the main road leading to
Pedaling was much easier on asphalt than on oxcart tracks. A military truck
rolled by, forcing them over to the grassy shoulder.
“Would the road be paved if it didn’t
lead to an army base?” Ko-sa asked.
“Why pave a road for farmers? That’s
for the army and important people.”
They went through a village, no more
than a clump of shacks by the road. A rooster seemed to be howling in disgust
as Ko-sa pinched his nose at the pungent stink of a roadside pigsty. An old man
trying to get a crick out of his neck nodded at them.
Uncle Su pressed ahead, never taking
his eyes off the pavement. Ko-sa struggled to keep up. “Much farther, Uncle?”
“We’ll get there soon enough.” Uncle
Su grimaced at a cramp and rode on.
They came to a long row of two-story
cement structures, more and bigger houses than anywhere in the vicinity of their
village. Some had a small shack on the roof, cobbled out of leftovers
much like the Su family hovel – space to rent out. They saw more bicycles now.
This must be the big city. A few of the riders passed them, but most were in no
hurry to get to the day’s toil.
The road was much wider than in the
countryside, but only the center was paved. A narrow ribbon of asphalt
challenged truck drivers to keep all four wheels on the black tar. The rest was
dirt and dust that swirled with the wind and passing vehicles.
Wood and tin signs vied for attention
on both sides of the highway, announcing the livelihoods of people who sweated
and loved and hated in tiny rooms next to nosy neighbors. They all sold
something. Rice in sacks and bins, cooking oil, dried fish, salt meat, farm
tools, and sundries spilled out the open doors onto low wooden tables and
cardboard boxes. Ko-sa gaped at piles of goods that left barely enough space in
the living rooms for the occupants to thread their way through.
used to be the capital. No longer,” said Uncle Su. “Now it’s Taipei, way up
north. Never been there.”
They stopped at a dzau dyan
for a breakfast of soybean milk, dumplings, rice gruel, eggs and radish
cake. A chubby middle-aged man, chin covered with stubble and a cigarette
dangling from his mouth, worked a wok on wheels out in the road to attract
attention. He took the order and pointed to bamboo stools inside. Ko-sa
stumbled on the rubber hose supplying the round metal basin full of soaking
dirty dishes. They went in and sat low above the wet cement floor.
As they waited Uncle whispered,
“Listen and do exactly what I say.” Su closed his eyes and scratched the back
of his head, wanting to say out loud: Not right. Give it up. Turn back.
Doubts raced like dervishes as he searched for words. Is this the only way?
Distracted by the smell of sizzling
meat and vegetable dumplings frying in oil, Ko-sa let his attention wander to
the cook behind the roadside kitchen. He sipped the soybean milk Uncle handed
him, certain this would be the only drink he would get. The cook brought in
more food than the entire Su family had to eat.
“Don’t forget,” Uncle said. “You’ll
see the light hanging above the street on a line between two poles. Green means
go and red means stop.”
Ko-sa was still swallowing dumplings
when Uncle Su belched and got up to pay. His inquisitive gaze wandered to the
calendar hanging from a nail on the bare concrete wall. Tomorrow would be
better. He would obey as always.
After breakfast the journey was
slowed by a swarm of bikes heading for the city center. A truck driver honked
them off the asphalt ribbon, threatening anyone who didn’t scurry for the dirt
shoulder. Farther down the road, a lone car worked its way into the stream of
bicycles and followed at their pace.
The clump of people gathered at the
street corner caught Ko-sa’s eye before he saw the red light swinging gently in
the breeze, suspended from a line between two electric poles. A small street
sign confirmed that they had arrived at the most important intersection in the
city, Chung Shan and Chung Cheng Roads.
Ko-sa thought about the street
names. Nobody in school had ever said anything about Chung Shan and
Chung Cheng when the Japanese ruled
Taiwan. But after
lost the big war the teachers didn’t speak Japanese any more and students
weren’t allowed to either. When the Nationalist soldiers came, everybody had to
learn Mandarin and there was a new ritual before class every morning. Yi ju
kung! Er ju kung! San ju kung! Bow three times before the picture
hanging in the center above the blackboard, then three more times before the
totally bald, half-smiling man in a framed print above the classroom door. In
Three Principles of the People class the teachers went over it again and again.
Chung Shan was Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic of
China. Chung Cheng was Chiang Kai-shek, the heroic President who will
defeat the Communist bandits and save the motherland. “Recover the Mainland.
Long live President Chiang,” was the mandatory shout at morning flag-raising.
Soldiers came and painted it in large characters on the school wall.
Ko-sa dismounted to wait for the red
light. He craned his neck skyward, awed by the overwhelming presence of the
tallest building he had ever seen. He was barely able to count all twelve
stories of the Tainan Hotel before Uncle told him to cross the street. “Look
where you’re going. You don’t want to get hit by a bike.”
They crossed over to the massive
Victorian-Japanese city government building at the far corner. Soldiers in
white leggings and high boots stood at parade rest where its circular driveway
met the street, and at the portico entrance. Ko-sa looked down at his bare
feet, wanting to be one of them, wearing boots.
The intersection opened into a broad
plaza in front of the railway station. They pedaled past a row of pedicabs
waiting for passengers from the overnight train from
travelers pressed through the gates as conductors took their time examining the
tickets of every departing passenger. Uncle Su stopped at the main entrance.
“Watch the bikes while I go inside.”
Humanity streamed by in all
directions. “More people here than in my entire village,” mumbled Ko-sa. A
giant white ghost in a strange uniform stopped just a few feet away from him.
Ko-sa stared at the apparition, dumbstruck.
The ghost smiled at him, then headed
for the sign in English – Tainan Railway Restaurant – seeking out one of the few
safe places for Americans to eat in a town where the local food and water
regularly gave the trots to US military advisors assigned to the Chinese air
Inside the station Su looked
up at the big board high on the wall above the ticket counters. He resisted the
urge to spit at what he couldn’t read, and lined up to ask the ticket clerk what
time the next train would come in.
“Where you wanna go?”
“Meeting somebody from the South,” Su mumbled.
“The express train from Kaohsiung arrives at 7:50.”
Outside, Ko-sa was transfixed by the rickshaws and pedicabs pulled and
pedaled by wiry men whose sweat ran in rivulets on their bare torsos. A bus
jammed with people belched a cloud of diesel exhaust in his face as Uncle Su
rejoined him. Several cars pulled up to the station, followed by a truck filled
with soldiers in fatigues. “Stay away from the military,” warned uncle. “Big
They walked their bikes past a row of
food stalls back to
Road. Uncle Su stopped near the corner to buy betel nut. “Want soybean milk?”
Ko-sa savored the surprise treat
while uncle stared at the red light gently swaying in midair. He sucked the
last of it through the straw, making a loud swish as they stood by the bikes and
At the Railway Restaurant, the American ghost finished his
scrambled eggs, leaving the rice gruel and pickled vegetable. He straightened
out his Army uniform and headed out at a relaxed pace for the three block walk
to the office of Civil Air Transport. From there he would catch the CIA shuttle
to the Ta Li military base, and go back to maintaining decrepit World War II
surplus vehicles for three divisions of the Nationalist Army that fled to
two years earlier, at the end of the Chinese Civil War.
He chuckled: the Colonels at Military
Assistance Advisory Group Headquarters are deluding themselves. The weekly
gung-ho pep talk in
Taipei is an empty farce. Do the big brass really believe their rant – that all
it would take is more American materiel and training, and the Nationalists will
return triumphant to Peking? Are they fool enough to think the ragtag remnants
of an army Mao routed can take back
from the same commie gooks that America’s best can’t drive out of Korea?
Futile fantasy, he thought. Anybody
can see that Chiang Kai-shek’s troops wander aimlessly around the base with
defeat smeared like shit on their weary faces. Yet the Gimo insists he can get
an invading force across a hundred miles of Taiwan Straits when neither the Nazi
juggernaut nor any other invader has been able to make it twenty miles across
the English Channel
in almost 1000 years. We couldn’t train Chiang’s armies to fight in World War
II. Dream on if you think we’re going to do it now.
Absorbed in his muse, the ghost
jostled a pedestrian at the intersection of Chung Cheng and Chung Shan
Roads. “Excuse me,” he said. The pedestrian muttered something in Chinese and
At the intersection, Uncle Su eyed his target waiting at
the corner for the light to change. When it flashed yellow on
Road he whispered, “Go!”
Ko-sa hopped on the bike and pedaled as hard as he could. He didn’t
see the American Army Captain starting to cross the street. What Ko-sa caught
in the corner of his eye was a white ghost jumping backwards as he sideswiped it
and swerved hard right, wobbling wildly. He pedaled harder, careening into the
intersection. A few feet away, the well-dressed Chinese businessman in the back
seat of the 1950 Ford yelled, “Stop. Dumb egg.” His driver jammed on the
brakes; the right fender ripped into Ko-sa’s tendons below the knee.
The car screeched to a halt, mangling
the bike, throwing Ko-sa.
” Uncle Su pounded his
chest. Horror and bile choked his throat as he watched his careful instructions
– “graze the side of the car” – crumple with Ko-sa’s body on the asphalt
pavement. He spat betel nut juice with fury, staining the pavement the same
deep color as his nephew’s crimson gash.
Ko-sa lay motionless, jaw clenched
tight, instinctively throttling pain into silence. Until he remembered: Uncle
said scream even though I won’t be hurt much. Ko-sa let the howling agony of
his lacerated body speak for itself. When he saw the blood gushing from his
torn leg he yelled even louder.
The Captain ran up, wishing he hadn’t
frightened the kid into pedaling away like crazy.
Uncle Su charged at the car like a
mad bull, cursing its occupants’ mothers and grandmothers.
The Captain tore off his uniform
shirt and fashioned a tourniquet. He kneeled by Ko-sa and twisted a sleeve
tight around his leg to stem the bleeding.
Su assaulted the rear window of the
Ford in a frenzy of exasperation and guilt, pounding with both fists. “Come
out. Turtle. Gwei-dzu shit head. You’ll pay for this.”
“Lock that door.” The terrified
businessman turned to his companion. “Make sure.”
Passers-by flocked to the scene,
craning their necks to see the injured boy and the foreigner on the pavement.
Their hushed whispers revealed more curiosity than concern.
Heads turned to the bellowing drama
of the incensed peasant. “Make him settle,” the businessman instructed his
The driver opened the front door very
slowly and got out to deal with the enraged farmer.
The Captain twisted and
released the bloody shirtsleeve, hoping to stem the flow of blood until…would
there be a doctor?
Su’s neck veins bulged as he
confronted the chauffeur, sending a shiver of anticipation through the crowd.
“Your pig-man can drive us to death in the paddy fields
but he has no right to hit my boy. Make him get out.” Su raised a clenched
“Calm yourself,” said the
driver. “The big man will pay. More money than you think.”
“You get the boy a new bike too.”
The driver circled the car to see if
there was any damage, nudging onlookers back. He got inside, locked the door,
and turned to report to his boss. The businessman shuddered. He glanced
furtively, saw ragged wrath surrounding his car, and put a hand in his suit
The Captain stroked Ko-sa’s forehead
with one hand and held on to the tourniquet with the other. “You’ll be all
Ko-sa opened his eyes to see the
details of a face he never imagined before his encounter with the apparition
walking out of the station. White skin, an aquiline nose straight out from
forehead to the bulbous tip. Light brown sandy hair and blue eyes. Ko-sa had
heard there were foreign devils in
Taiwan who came from
“Beautiful Country,” but this face close to his was more shocking than the
ghosts of his dreams.
Aunt Mei-ling’s warning rattled like chains haunting him.
So often she said, “The only people who can be trusted to help are family.” But
Uncle was not there, and this apparition was. Ko-sa squinted, peering through
excruciating pain to bring the ghost into focus.
A witness to the accident badgered
the officer in charge of the guard detail at the city government building to
intervene. Rock hard annoyance in the military policeman’s furled lips
intimidated the crowd. People in his path pushed to open a passage for him.
The Chinese officer stood over the American Captain, tense, waiting for the
foreigner to respond immediately to his presence as a Chinese would.
Oblivious, the Captain comforted
Ko-sa. The Chinese officer tapped a leather boot hard on the pavement. Then he
patted the American on the shoulder from behind. “You go now. We take care
As the Chinese officer led him
through the crowd and past the car, the American saw money change hands.
The dirty bills amounted to a little
more than $24, enough to keep the Su family alive for nearly four months.
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