The sound of a cascading roll-up door shattered the stillness of the night. Its metal frame hit the concrete floor with a determined clink that reverberated throughout the deserted train station. It jolted Ah Li out of his slumber, and almost out of the aluminum bench on which he had dozed off.
He was not sure how long he had slept, but the right half of his body was so numb he could barely sit up. Wiping the drool off his mouth, he felt the imprint of his canvas schoolbag on the right side of his face. The noise of the door came from the other end of the station, where an old, hunchbacked woman was closing down her snack booth. Ah Li had chosen the bench because he had a clear view of a row of steaming buns, next to a pot of simmering tea-marinated eggs, on the booth’s front counter. They were the visual condiment to his dinner: a cold, hard fan tuan—a rice ball stuffed with pickled daikon. The old lady turned off the lights, secured the lock, and disappeared into the darkness that now engulfed the station. Only a sprinkle of dim lightbulbs illuminated the signs that lined the platforms. Under the yellow light, the blue “Taipei Station” signs looked like a row of ghostly green eyes that drifted into the infinite night sky.
Ah Li shuddered a bit, even though the mid-summer humidity had covered him in a film of sweat. For the first time since he left home this morning, he felt alone.
* * *
The village was completely silent when he woke up at four. A thick layer of mist blanketed everything, including sounds, it seemed, for the chickens and pigs were unusually quiet. Ah Li collected a handful of tepid eggs and fed the hens; they simply stared at him without the customary whining. The adjacent roosters also looked up, their combs wiggling, but none crowed. The piglets behind the chicken pens lay peacefully on top and around their mother, their little bellies rising and falling in a rhythmic interval. The sow awoke long enough to give Ah Li a casual wave of her left ear—“good luck,” Ah Li imagined her saying—before falling back to sleep. He surveyed the vegetable patch and fruit trees before heading back into the kitchen.
Mother had been busy. Ah Li’s junior high uniform was re-ironed, wrapped in a piece of recycled wax paper, and secured by a straw rope that she made for this trip. Next to it on the table was an orange-size rice ball, wrapped in a plastic bag full of droplets from its steam, and two pairs of yams and guavas. On top of his schoolbag was a bunch of yellow pencils, sharpened to the same length, that his mother had bartered from a nicknack store in town. And finally, pinned to the strap of the bag were three blossoms freshly picked from his father’s magnolia tree. Their long, ivory petals looked delicate against an emerald green leave that was intentionally left on the stem. Ah Li inhaled and held his breath. The fragrance filled his body. His father was now with him.
When Ah Li headed toward the front gate, his mother did not come out to say goodbye. She was too nervous, Ah Li knew, and she might cry. It was a relief that no one was seeing him off, though. He had been arming himself up for the long, unknown journey, and the last thing he wanted to see before leaving would be crying relatives. Ah Li took the usual, twenty-minute path to reach his middle school and from there, he turned onto the dirt road that cut through a vast field of rice paddies and extended into the next town. A few glimmers of light floated in the expansive, misty darkness. At first, everything was so quite that all Ah Li could hear was his own breathing and the pebbles crackling under his steps. Gradually, frogs started to croak, birds chirped and, an hour into his walk, roosters joined in to break the dawn. By the time Ah Li took a seat in the back of the 5:30 bus at the town’s only bus stop, the streets were teeming with farmers, produce vendors, and school children ready to start their day.
The bus ride was a sweaty blur. All windows were rolled down, but the balmy wind swept through the bus like a rush of gel, sticking everyone’s shirt to their backs. Between struggling to stay conscious in the dizzying heat and cranking his neck to see the time on a fellow passenger’s watch, two hours passed. The bus put him at the station exactly five minutes before the northbound train was set to embark on a five-hour crawl to Taipei.
* * *
Ah Li stood up from the bench and walked into the nearby men’s restroom. A fluorescent tube flickered in the back corner. Whiffs of chlorine filled the white-tiled room. He carefully hanged his schoolbag on the edge of a door and took out a worn towel. The faucet released a gentle stream of lukewarm water, its sound echoing in the empty space like a soft whisper. Ah Li stuck his head into the sink and let the water wash over his entire face. He took off the tank top that he had been wearing all day and rinsed off the accumulation of sweat, dust, and fumes. The sensation of gliding the wet towel down his chest, stomach, and back calmed him somewhat. He then unbuckled his khaki shorts and pulled them, along with his cotton briefs, down to his knees. In one quick and precise motion, he wiped clean his crotch with the towel, as he had done countless times after his seven-hour work in the rice fields and orchards since he was ten. And the expected refresh brought Ah Li a sense of relief that he had been craving all day.
Putting his clothes back on, Ah Li exited the restroom and located a different bench in an inconspicuous corner. This would be his bed for the night. Since he decided eight months ago to take the Taipei Teacher’s College entrance exam, in addition to the regular high-school exams in the nearby city, his neighbors had worked collectively to cobble together money for his trip. But they were unable to sell enough fruits, vegetables, and livestock to pay for a hotel stay. To thank their generosity, Ah Li’s mother insisted on killing a pig and two chickens from their farm and made one hundred dumplings. She delivered them door to door, with Ah Li in tow. Ah Li was grateful; these neighbors practically helped raise him and his younger sister since his father was taken away by a couple of Kuomintang officials on a sweltering summer night ten years ago. No one in the Nationalist Party ever offered an explanation of the arrest. Now the whole village’s hope for sending their first boy to a government-sponsored junior college rested on Ah Li’s shoulders. He must do well tomorrow.
As he lay down and wrapped his arms around his schoolbag, he heard some noise coming from the restrooms. He quickly sat up and saw a short, rotund figure exit the men’s side. But he was almost certain that he was the only one in the bathroom just now. He held his breath and listened again. Other than some cars outside, he could hear nothing else. He must be hallucinating because of the heat and travel, Ah Li thought to himself. Brushing aside the momentary concern, he repositioned his body on the narrow bench and closed his eyes. Exhaustion swiftly dragged him deep into unconsciousness.
* * *
The warmth of a hand on his body pulled Ah Li out of haphazard dreams. A man towered over him. Strangely, Ah Li was not alarmed. In fact, the big palm that gently but firmly stayed in contact with his bare arm, even as he struggled to get up, felt rather comforting.
“You’re still here. Why are you sleeping here?” The man’s baritone was slightly raspy.
Slowly, a face came into focus: it was pale, even in the dim light, and round, framed by a thin head of wiry hair. Underneath the bushy eyebrows was a pair of oddly bright eyes. Ah Li could not tell the man’s age, as half of the face was in the shadow.
“Ran away from home, ah? This place is not safe for a young boy like you, you know,” the man said with a faint smile.
His accent indicated that he was from Mainland China. His breath smelled of a hint of tobacco and alcohol. And there was another scent that seemed to come from the man’s body. A bit sour, slightly sweet, and somewhat musky. Ah Li couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
“I’m here for the exam,” Ah Li said softly, “didn’t run away.”
“Ah, the entrance exams tomorrow. How come you aren’t staying with a relative or at a hotel?”
“No relatives here.”
“Well, this bench won’t do,” the man declared.
“Come stay at my place tonight. I’m only fifteen minutes away from here.”
Ah Li was surprised. He had been repeatedly warned, by people in his village, that he must stay away from scheming city folks when he came to Taipei. They are ruthless and will take advantage of you whenever they can, they admonished. But here was a stranger, and a Mainlander no less, who readily offered his home for Ah Li to stay for the night. Maybe not all immigrants from China were as vicious as those who took his father away. And the idea of getting free lodging and sleeping on a real bed was very appealing at the moment. The bench was torture even for Ah Li, who grew up sharing a tatami bed with his mother and sister.
“I’m okay here for...” before Ah Li could finish, the man had started to head toward the exit.
“C’mon,” he waved.
* * *
The giant clock on the station’s façade looked like a watchful eye in the sky. Traffic lights dotted the deserted streets, blinking in syncopation. Occasionally, a car whisked by, stirring up the heavy, humid air. A few shadowy figures paced around some gated mansions near the Presidential Building; they paused long enough to watch Ah Li and the man walk pass the parameters that they were guarding. Ah Li stayed a few steps behind the man, whose strides were adroit and swift despite his rotund torso and short legs. He cut through city blocks and small alleys with familiarity and precision. Ah Li had to speed up a few times to catch up, when the man turned a corner and almost disappeared into the night. In no time, it seemed, they arrived at a one-story house. ”Yuan Residence,” the door plate read.
Behind the red gate was a small yard full of pots of banyan and bamboo trees that neatly lined the brick walls. Upon entering through the screened front door, a wave of doughy aroma hit Ah Li. White steams were coming out of the only lit room in the back of the house. Mr. Yuan turned on the lights in the living room. He appeared to be in his 50s and had a round, hairless face with rosy cheeks and lips. His stocky body, clad in a white cotton t-shirt, was flanked by two thick arms. His skin looked puffy and pasty, a stark contrast to Ah Li’s taut and tanned skin. Now fully visible under the light, Mr. Yuan’s eyes seemed even brighter. For some reason, the way they were fixed on Ah Li reminded him of those big dogs that guarded his neighbor’s yard, especially when they were waiting for their food. Ah Li averted his eyes. The living room was small and sparsely furnished. The most noticeable decorations were a few framed commendations and photos that looked official.
“What are you doing standing there? I don’t bite.” The man flashed his yellow teeth.
Ah Li shook his head. The doughy scent had seeped into his pores, causing his empty stomach to growl violently.
“Come with me. C’mon.” The man disappeared into the back room.
* * *
It was a kitchen, but an unusual one. Along the wall on the right were stacks of bamboo steamers. A long wooden table covered in white flour took up the other side of the room, next to a stove topped by a big wok, on top of which a stack of steamers were spewing white puffs. A round table sat in the middle of the room; there was a flat bamboo tray loosely covered by a piece of cloth. Peeking through the covering was a couple of snowy white buns. Mr. Yuan was a mantou maker. That was the smell from his body, Ah Li realized.
Mr. Yuan took out a bun and handed it to Ah Li, along with a bowl of hot soy milk.
“Eat. This should calm your belly.”
Ah Li hesitated. The mantou looked absolutely delicious at this moment. Its perfectly curved top had a luscious sheen. The aroma was dizzying. But Ah Li was calculating in his head if he should eat it now. Saving it for tomorrow would mean that he could have it for breakfast without using the little money he had in his pocket. And judging by the size of this bun, he could even stretch it into two meals.
“Eat. What’s the use of being shy? Eat!” Mr. Yuan offered, as Ah Li stood there with the mantou in one hand and the bowl in the other.
“There is more for you when you finish.” Mr. Yuan transferred another steamer full of piping hot buns onto the tray on the table. His face was glistening.
Upon hearing that this might not be the only one he could have, Ah Li sunk his teeth into the fluffy white bun. Steam gushed. Maybe he was simply too hungry, having had only the rice ball and a yam all day. But the taste of this mantou made his head spin. The outer layer was soft and the inner part was chewy. Its warmth filled Ah Li’s mouth with expansive gratification. He had to resist the urge to swallow it whole and made himself savor each bite, accompanied by a satisfying gulp of the silky soy milk. Ah Li had only had mantou once when he visited the neighboring town for a produce trade. But people in his village were abhorred when he told them that he liked it: “How can you like the food of those foreign pigs?” Ah Li understood their protest: a staple in Northern Chinese foods, mantou and other wheat flour-based buns were said to have been brought over by mainlanders, many of whom were young soldiers that retreated to Taiwan with the Kuomingtan in 1948. His village was ransacked by a group of those soldiers, led by a couple of Nationalist officials accusing the villagers of harboring “radicals” who plotted to overturn the government. Over a dozen men, including Ah Li’s father, had been imprisoned without a trial since then.
“Where did you go, boy?” Ah Li found Mr. Yuan staring at him. “What’s on your mind?”
“Nothing.” Ah Li felt a bit embarrassed, as if he was caught having negative thoughts toward his gracious host.
“Worrying about tomorrow?” Mr. Yaun removed more steamers from the stove. He almost disappeared behind a wall of white mist.
Ah Li shook his head. Exams never worried him much.
“Where is home?”
“A small town near Taichung.”
“Ah, you’re from the countryside. Brothers and sisters?”
“A younger sister.”
“The only son. Like me. What does your family do?”
Mr. Yuan laughed: “You don’t like to talk, do you?”
Ah Li blushed. Farming did not require much talking. And he was busy devouring the mantou. Realizing that he might be rude, he searched for something to say.
“You sell mantou for a living?”
“Yes, clever boy,” Mr. Yuan responded with another hearty laugh.
“Have been for, oh, almost ten years now. Got sick of the military shit. Did you see those commendations in the living room? You risk your life and that’s what you get. Useless pieces of paper. And this.”
Mr. Yuan held up his left hand. His middle and ring fingers were missing.
“All that bullshit about taking back our homeland. Even I know it’s a pipe dream, and I have folks back home in Shandong. You know we walked almost a week to get to the ship to come here? By that time, we looked like a bunch of crippled beggars. We were running for our lives, not defending our so-called motherland.”
* * *
Mr. Yuan slammed a large dough onto the long table. The moist ball of flour immediately sprang back into shape upon impact. Its elasticity went on full display under Mr. Yuan’s dexterous handling: it folded, twisted, and rolled at the command of Mr. Yuan’s fingers, palms, and knuckles. In a blink, it morphed from a gooey mound into a doughy log, which was then cut into a dozen uniform sections. Mr. Yuan attached some paper to the bottom of each piece and placed it into the steamer. He threw in some more firewood to fuel the crackling fire. A flash of bright red licked the tip of his hand.
“Rice wine?” He pulled out a nondescript bottle from under the table and sat down next to Ah Li.
An Li nodded without thinking. Mr. Yuan filled a glass as tall as Ah Li’s palm.
“Can you hold your liquor?” Ah Li nodded again.
“Alright. Gan bei!” Mr. Yuan downed the wine in one gulp.
Almost simultaneously, Ah Li followed suit. He had had to toast relatives at family banquets since he was a kid and the men in the family would not allow him to substitute hard liquor with juice. To make him a real man of the family, they insisted. But this rice wine must be homemade, as it was harsher and more pungent than the store-bought variety. It burned Ah Li’s mouth, throat, and all the way down to his gut. He gasped for air, as Mr. Yuan filled both glasses again.
“Are you an athlete? You are so lean and fit.”
“I work in the rice paddies everyday.”
“So you get a lot of sun. Look at your skin. So dark.”
Mr. Yuan reached over and placed his right hand on Ah Li’s bare shoulder. It took Ah Li by surprise, but he did not recoil. He noticed how meaty and warm Mr. Yuan’s palm was. And the contact was gentle, even though those fingers could obviously exert great force. Ah Li let the hand stay on him.
“I was a fit, young man, too, you know. I was so strong I carried five battle buddies out of danger in a matter of minutes. Bullets were flying all around. They were all taller and bigger than me. But I got them all out.”
He flexed and curled up his left arm.
“Look at this. I’ve still got it. What girl wouldn’t want this? Right? Feel it. Go ahead.” Mr. Yuan curled up his right arm as well and leaned toward Ah Li. He obliged. It was muscular, with a layer of fatty skin on it. A hint of musky odor wafted toward Ah Li’s face.
“Solid, huh?” He took another gulp and urged Ah Li to do the same.
Ah Li absentmindedly nodded. He was staring at Mr. Yuan’s left hand.
“How... um,” Ah Li stuttered. “What happened to your hand?”
“This?” Mr. Yuan extended his remaining fingers. It reminded Ah Li of the torn comb of one of his roosters, the result of a vicious cockfight.
“Lost them to the damn Communists. They ambushed us one night and we got into a hand-to-hand combat. I killed a bunch of them bastards.”
Mr. Yuan’s eyes were red. His fists clenched.
“They stabbed my good buddy, Shiao Luo. I grabbed his attacker’s knife and drove my knife into his throat. Straight through.” Mr. Yuan made a swift motion toward Ah Li’s chest. Ah Li froze.
Just as swiftly, Mr. Yuan’s face softened.
“And Shiao Luo... Ay, Shiao Luo.”
Ashen mist filled his eyes. His body drooped over the table like an unleavened dough. He seemed to age tenfold in an instant. And he was drifting away to a place of grave pain—the kind of pain caused by losing a loved one, Ah Li thought.
“So, got a girlfriend back home?” Mr. Yuan returned, all of a sudden, with a smile.
Ah Li shook his head.
“No? Ever made out with a girl?”
“Never been with anyone,” Ah Li admitted.
“Really? A handsome boy like you? How’s that possible?”
Ah Li blushed. He was not used to hearing compliments on his looks. In fact, he had always believed that no one really cared for his appearance.
“Nobody is interested,” he said quietly.
Mr. Yuan looked at him, eyebrows raised. “Are you kidding?” He barked.
“You are gorgeous.”
Ah Li’s face was burning. Mr. Yuan’s adoration was unexpected and flattering, and it embarrassed Ah Li. He could feel the heat rushing to his head. The alcohol was certainly doing its trick. The room started to spin. He leaned back to counterbalance the whirl, only to nearly fall off the wooden bench on which they both sat.
“Careful!” Mr. Yuan caught Ah Li with both hands and propped him back up on the bench.
Ah Li began to giggle, which turned into uncontrollable laughs. He was not sure what was funny, but he felt a sense of elation for the first time in a very long time. On the eve of the most important exam of his life, alone in a stranger’s house in a strange city, he was drunk and did not really care. And for the first time in his life, someone—a complete stranger, a man of his father’s age—complimented him. The attention, something he rarely received, felt odd, but good.
Mr. Yuan watched Ah Li in amusement, his face was brightly red as well. “I didn’t put anything into your mantou or drinks, young man. Just so you know,” he said.
“I don’t know why I’m laughing,” Ah Li confessed.
“Well, there is nothing wrong with a little laughter once in a while, is there?”
Mr. Yuan took another shot of liquor.
“Especially in this completely messed-up world....”
“Well, how about a shower to make you even happier? I’m sure you need it.”
* * *
Indeed, the water cleansed Ah Li a lot more than his small towel could do at the station’s restroom. Cold streams cascaded down his back and soothed his burning skin. He closed his eyes, head still spinning, and lingered in a euphoric coolness. A towel appeared by the now-ajar bathroom door; Ah Li thought he closed it when he came in. He put on the clean pair of shorts he had brought but exited the bathroom without his tank top, which smelled of sweat and fumes. In the living room, Mr. Yuan had put down a large cushion on the floor, covered it with a straw mat, and placed another blanket on top of it.
“Here you are, for tonight.”
Mr. Yuan then pointed to the only bedroom in the house. “But, if you want to sleep on a real bed, I don’t mind sharing.”
“No, no, this is just fine,” Ah Li responded without thinking.
Mr. Yuan paused, his eyes locked with Ah Li’s. He was about to say something else, but stopped himself. He turned away and moved toward his bedroom.
“Alright then. Go to sleep. It’s late.” The lights went off.
“Thank... thank you,” Ah Li said in the dark.
As soon as his head hit the pillow, Ah Li plunged into a deep sleep.
* * *
A crushing weight on top of Ah Li jerked him awake. He could not see anything at first. All he could hear was some throaty grunting near his chest; each grunt released a pungent, rotten smell. It took him a second to figure out that it was a heavy and doughy body weighing down on him. Two thick arms wrapped around his rib cage so tightly that he could barely breathe. He then noticed that the body was stark naked. And something hot and scratchy was pressed against his crotch. Ah Li struggled to free himself to no avail; the body pinned him down on the mat like a fallen boulder. Suddenly, he realized that his shorts had been removed. This frightened him. Ah Li unleashed a deep yell, kicked the body with his muscular legs, and smashed the dark face with the kind of force he used for chopping firewood. The man wailed and rolled over. Ah Li jumped up and searched for his shorts, and schoolbag. Groping in the dark, he knocked over something that sounded like a vase and managed to find a switch on the wall. A desk lamp came on.
Mr. Yuan lay on the floor in a fetal position. His bare torso, convulsing, was covered in sweat and patches of white flour.
“I just… just wanted to…,” he whimpered.
* * *
Ah Li found his shorts and threw them on, along with the rest of his clothes. He checked his hidden pocket; the cash was still there. He located his socks and shoes by the front door and hastily put them on as well. He was about to leave when he paused, turned around, and ran into the kitchen. With one hand holding a plastic bag that he randomly grabbed, he shoved as many mantous into the bag as he could.
* * *
Back in the living room, Mr. Yuan was still on the floor. His arms draped over his shoulders, his blubbery body quivering, as he sobbed. Ah Li stepped around the body, pushed through the doors, and left them open.
* * *
Taipei at dusk was a cacophony of car horns, bicycle bells, and police whistles. Viewed from the footbridge, the swarm of people hurrying home looked like ants scampering in and out of the train station. Hovering above them were buildings cast in a mélange of golden brown and red by the setting sun.
Ah Li leaned against the guard rails, half of his feet dangling over the ledge. For almost an hour, he stood there, motionless. He could not recall exactly how he returned here after the exams concluded for the day. In fact, he remembered little of what had happened since he escaped this morning. Some street vendors directed him to the exam site. A mass of teenagers, all clad in drab uniform, quietly and mechanically plowed through test after test. Ah Li finished all of them early enough to review his answers a couple of times, despite the feeling of his temples ballooning by the hour. He napped through the lunch break and ate nothing. After the bell rang to announce the end of the first day, Ah Li waded through a sea of sluggish students and wandered around the city. He ended up on the footbridge by the train station, one of the first he and Mr. Yuan crossed last night.
The unopened bag of buns dangled from his schoolbag’s strap, next to the single magnolia blossom that survived the morning struggle. Ah Li had tried not to look at them all day until now, and somehow he could not bring himself to throw them away. Squeezed into a small bag in haste, the buns looked contorted and wet. Steam had long pooled at the bottom. In the sunlight, the droplets glistened like golden beads.
He had difficulty making sense of what happened at Mr. Yuan’s, not so much because he remembered only fragmented moments, but more because of how he felt. That was his first physical contact with anybody in his life. He did not like that Mr. Yuan forced himself on him. But oddly, he was not upset. What transpired was a shock, for sure, and the whole incident bewildered him. But he was most confused about feeling a tinge of excitement deep down, the way his heart tightened when he recalled the evening. The way Mr. Yuan’s large palms cradled his shoulders. It was a sense of comfort and support that he had never experienced.
* * *
Ah Li tore open the bag and blindly picked out a bun. It was a double-layer mantou, with a swirl of brown sugar-infused center and a snowy white exterior. Ah Li took a small bite; it was soft and chewy, albeit cold and soggy. It melted into a silky mush on his tongue. He held it there.
The sun disappeared behind the buildings. Street lights came on, slowly dotting the city with orange sparkles. The thick, humid air wrapped Ah Li in a warm embrace. He climbed down the footbridge and began to retrace his footsteps from last night, hopefully back to Mr. Yuan’s house.
W. Scott teaches art history by day, and daydreams by night. His writings in both English and Chinese have appeared in art and culture magazines and journals since 1995. When he is not busy crisscrossing the Pacific, he calls California home.