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A fact about the chickenpox vaccine: Introduced in 1984, it became commercially available in the US in 1995.
A story about the chickenpox vaccine: I was born in the US in 1993. I moved with my parents to Taipei in 1995. In the whirlwind of transatlantic relocation, I did not receive the chickenpox vaccine.
In 2004, I transferred from a Mandarin-speaking public school to an English-speaking international school for the fifth grade and, in my first week, contracted chickenpox. Thus the new girl disappeared on the second week. I heard she’s got chickenpox, isn’t that like what babies have, no it’s what you get if a baby farts in your eye, oh my gosh that sucks, LOL.
Mom was calling long-distance from a business trip in Singapore. Dad was panicking. I was sobbing. I had banged my arm into the refrigerator door and the blistery pox on my elbow had popped, and while wiping my tears with the tips of my nails (hands were blistered) I popped another on my cheek. Salty tears met trickling pus and stung like livid bees.
Dad was trying to comfort without touching, terrified of my minefield body. His hand still clung to the receiver from which Mom was yelling. I was likewise yelling (MY HEAD HAO ITCHY HAO ITCHY). Dad ran to retrieve my comb, the one Mom used to do my ponytail daily with its delightfully sharp teeth. In one desperate stroke he dragged the comb from the crown of my head down to the bottom of my neck. As he did my head went POP POP POP and I went AH AH AH and Dad went FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK!
A fact about pomelos: They contain three times the amount of fiber found in grapefruit, making them one of the most effective foods for enhancing bowel movement.
A story about pomelos: On Zhongqiu / Moon / Mid-Autumn Festival, people exchange well wishes, moon cakes, pomelos, premium meat. The year I was in the seventh grade, my parents received over two dozen pomelos from well-wishers.
The Festival came and went. Our many leftover pomelos began to discolor, swelling with the uncomfortable weight of a pregnant belly five days overdue. We began eating them after breakfast, lunch, dinner.
On the third day of this diet, I was struck by an unprecedented stomachache. Caramel-colored pulp gushed out of me and into the toilet, spotted with citrusy clumps. My parents imposed a liquid diet, but the diarrhea grew belligerent. I was appalled but not exactly surprised; since the pox, I was beginning to know something about the ways in which my body could betray me.
On Monday, as I displayed no other symptoms and my parents both had work, I went to school. During my first-period Biology class, I risked a single, wary, silent fart. It was accompanied by an unfamiliar murky wetness. I seized up from head to anus. Petrified, I continued learning about photosynthesis in ramrod straight stillness. After class I lengthened the straps of my backpack until it covered the backs of my thighs, strolled to the restroom at an inconspicuous pace, and changed into my dance leotard and gym shorts. I wedged half a roll of tissue paper under my buttocks and stuffed the shit-streaked pants into the industrial trashcan.
That night Mom showed me how to use a sanitary pad as a diaper so I could continue going to school.
It was my first time using a pad. It was my last time eating a pomelo.
A fact about masturbation: In Mandarin it is zi wei, which also means to console oneself.
A story about masturbation: At some point I discovered the particular pleasure of having a thick down winter duvet tucked between my thighs. Later I realized that further pressure equaled further pleasure, and arrived at the conclusion of wedging a pillow. More realizations: concentrated pressure equaled concentrated pleasure. What did one use to exert pressure?
Hands. Yet the act hardly qualified as an activity. It fell in the category of nose-picking: a private deed—nothing to broadcast, nothing to hide.
By this point I was in the ninth grade. The world economy was in free fall, but this had little bearing on us beyond the fact that our expat classmates whose parents worked for AIG spoke of moving away.
We roamed the hallways in hormonal, rowdy droves. We knew from Hollywood that our peers in the US were likely having sex, but we ourselves had yet to receive any sex education beyond the strictly biological. The extent of our mating rituals saw people stealing each other’s sweatshirts and baseball caps to wear as emblems of intimacy; in the course of these thefts there was much brushing of fingers against necks and pulsing wrists.
During one such performance after school, someone asked Yo does anyone know what masturbation in Chinese? to which someone else said It’s zi wei while at the same time I asked What’s masturbation? to which another person asked Did someone just effing ask what masturbation is?
After which we had no choice but to conduct a democratic count of Who Knows What Masturbation Is.
75%, it turned out: all of the boys, half of the girls.
Henceforth my bedtime regimen was forever clarified, forever tainted. To console oneself was alright-sounding, but masturbation sounded like an industrial disease. Duvet—legs—night—everything was orgasm-stained. There was new vocabulary filling the hallways—Perv! Pedo! Sex addict!
I grew scared. I started a tally in my daily planner. I resolved to document each self-consolation, and that I would not exceed five ticks every month. Self-regulation. The tally would be my umpire against pervhood.
A few weeks later it was five ticks every two weeks.
Five ticks every week.
A fact about tampons: Most commonly found in the US, Germany, and Austria; cited as the menstrual hygiene product of choice by under 2.5% of women in Taiwan, Japan, and China.
A story about tampons: My school had a swimming pool accessible through an outdoor spiral staircase overlooking the track and field. It was shared among all twelve grades, meaning occasional closures when one of its younger users unwittingly defecated.
School policy stated that female students could switch out of swim class during menstruation and make up for the session when their class had moved on to a terrestrial unit. Caveat: broadcasting the exact dates of your cycle. (Boys: Hey why do vampires carry used tampons? Tea bags!)
Most girls faked illness outright. Yet in my junior year of high school, I was met with the un-sick-dayable swim class of the Final Unit Test. Mom said There’s this thing that Americans use—ke shi we shouldn’t use it, normally—ping chang bu ying gai put not-natural things into our bodies—
The only product we found after scouring three supermarkets was a mint-colored box no bigger than a cigarette carton. No applicator
TWO KNUCKLES DEEP?
Beyond an embarrassed frontal view, I had never looked between my legs, never bent down with a thirst for self-knowledge. (I would later learn via film and literature that this was not the norm for many children, who showed you theirs if you showed them yours.) The few hairs I had spawned looked spidery, synthetic.
I pressed the cotton at different spots along the fleshy gap. It took ten minutes—bleeding liberally into the bowl, wiping, flushing, gagging, repeating—before I inferred the hole that must be The Hole. It took another ten minutes of prying and prodding before Mom knocked and I was saying Help help help.
It was done, in the end. Blood on our hands.
I passed the swim test. I climbed out of the pool and a heavy water balloon dropped within me. I knew, intuitively, what had occurred. Wrapping a school-supplied towel—white—around my waist, I ran. Outside: the spiral staircase, wet feet slapping like dead fish, body looming over the field of touch rugby, soccer, javelin—of people dashing, straining, exerting force—and me above their heads, dashing, straining, exerting force—a streak of crimson spreading blearily down the back of the snowy towel like an obscene tail, a mammoth eel, a clown’s carnal grin screeching:
There’s a lot more where this came from!
A fact about fruit: Over 53% of fresh fruit consumed in the US is imported from abroad.
A story about fruit: As part of my undergraduate financial aid package in my freshman year of college, I helped erect pyramids of bananas, apples, and pears in the dining halls. I learned what my Biochem classes did not teach me: that here in New Jersey, hues and varieties of fruit never altered with the seasons. The apples were eternally plastic-looking, green with a discordant flush of rouge, as though spray-painted.
One day, the fellow student who stacked the fruit with me every morning said that almost all the bananas in the world are clones of one banana called the Cavendish after some English duke. I retorted that maybe it was so in the United States, but in the subtropical island where I grew up, we had a relationship with our fruits, we knew that plums and loquats came in the spring, mangoes and watermelons in the summer, snow pears and pomelos—in any case, we, unlike Americans, were free from the clutches of monoculture.
He surrendered both gloved hands in the air. Okay okay, I’m just telling you what I read. I obviously don’t know anything about Taiwan. Then, playfully: Like, is it a part of China?
He had learned, from our daily fruit-stacking, the buttons of mine that were most easily pushed.
Don’t be a dick. I refused to be tempted into another tirade.
So. He pretended to throw one of those green-red apples at me. Are you, like, with-with that guy from yesterday?
- Oh—no, it was just a first date.
- So do you—are you only interested in Asian guys? I feel like I only ever see you go out with them. (He was white American. Monocultural.)
- Um—I’ve never really thought about it. Where I’m from, Asian guys are just—guys.
- Right, yeah. (Chuckling, squirming.) That, um, makes sense.
- Anyway, the guy from yesterday would be a departure. He’s Vietnamese.
- How would that be a departure?
- I’ve only ever dated Taiwanese guys.
- But still, he’s a tall Asian dude. (Shrugging.) That’s still well within your type, no?
After we finished heaping the glassy apples, I returned to my dorm and Googled the banana varieties in Taiwan, heart pounding: The main cultivars of banana in Taiwan are Pei Chiao, a Cavendish clone, commonly grown in monocultures.
My fellow fruit-stacker, instead of the Vietnamese boy, would become Boyfriend #1. One year later, after the relationship ended, I wondered how much of my initial impetus had been to prove myself open-minded. Or maybe I was trying to make him more open-minded. Either way; the year was 2012 and I, aged eighteen, believed that I was living in a post-racial society.
A fact about urinary tract infections: 50-60% of women will develop at least one UTI in their lifetimes, accounting for 25% of all clinical bacterial infections suffered by women.
A story about urinary tract infections: In my senior year of college, I began experiencing recurring UTIs, despite not having any sex—the most common cause—at the time. (Boyfriend #1 was already onto his Girlfriend #2.) After I got my third infection in two months, I decided that it was no longer wise to flush it out with Ocean Spray juice. I wanted to seek medical help, but had never lived in a country without universal health care. My vocabulary broadened: primary care physician, deductible, copay.
Over the semester, I racked up five infections and $1,070 in bills. Every weekend, I FaceTimed my parents to report a new infection or a new bill. They tried to reassure me:
- Don’t worry so much about the money, worry about your work, worry about getting better. The doctor still has no explanation for why this is happening?
- Stress, lifestyle, diet, genetics. So no, they know nothing.
- Shui-tu-bu-fu, shui-tu-bu-fu.
By which they meant, water-soil-not-adapting. As in, Your body is not acclimating to its new environment.
Platitudes sounded better in Mandarin, but were not any more helpful for it.
- I’ve been here four years, Ma. How long does it take to adapt?
Communal dormitory bathrooms were furtive, high-tension places. People would do anything to defecate without being heard. They waited until the dead of night to make an attempt. I learned about these nocturnal struggles from visiting the bathroom three times an hour myself, day and night, to drip drip drip my oft-bloody pee into the bowls. Sometimes I gave up and wore a sanitary pad to bed instead.
One Monday morning, having woken up twelve times over the course of the night due to a throbbing urethra, I called quits on my weekly schedule. I emailed my thesis advisor about having to miss our meeting due to a bad cut I received in the dining hall kitchens. (Thesis topic: Cells of house flies. Thesis working title: Mechanisms of collective cell behavior in M. domestica. Thesis title to my friends: The flypaper.) I found a thick gauze in the RA’s first-aid kit to wrap convincingly around my finger. I made myself a bowl of instant ramen with lukewarm tap water and crept back into bed.
Things that friends and family said during this time:
- You’re smart and young and everything will be fine.
- There are people who would kill to be in your position.
- Have you heard of gratitude journaling?
- Being sad for a week or two is normal, but at a certain point you just need to DECIDE to stop being sad, you know? You need to DECIDE to get over it.
- Mom: What do you want to do then, do you want to leave school? Is that what you want?
- Dad: Do you want to come home? Yao hui jia ma? Come home?
Wordlessly ejecting droplets of pink urine in bed, my shoulds and should-nots encircled me like a Halloween-themed carousel, grotesque faces flickering Coney Island-style. I should: update my resume, research post-grad job options, go to the lab to check on my house flies. I should: apologize to my thesis advisor for the meeting I missed while faking an injury. I should not: fake injuries to miss advisor meetings. I should: fold my laundry, trim my toenails, correct my posture. I should not: under any circumstance, have another spicy instant ramen, because if I ate one more bowl of that shit this week all my hair would fall out by age thirty.
A fact about consensual sex: 21.2% of US college students have had sex that was not it, according to the Association of American Universities.
A story about consensual sex: The last time I had it in college was also the first truly Bad Sex I ever had. It was the night before graduation, and I’d been drawn in by the Euro-beauty of him, the chumminess, shined Oxfords, racial ambiguity, dark curls. Goal-setting: You’re a grown-ass woman, just have impromptu sex for once, see if you like it.
An hour later we were in his bedroom. There was undressing, repositioning. While he had been making atrocious mmm-shlrr-aarnph! noises amidst fondling, he went radio-silent once he was standing (pants pooled around feet with shirt still on) and I was kneeling on the bed (naked). My lips were cupped around their very first Italian penis, descendant of Casanova, receiving zero response. His hands hung palm-open. He could not be more inert if Michelangelo had chiseled him.
In-out, in-out, in-out, in-out. My belly button was cold. I unplunged myself.
- I’ll get the condom?
- Can we keep going for a bit?
What the fuck? Was it possible that the paralysis was a positive reaction? There was nothing but to dive in again. In-out-in-out-in-out-in-out.
- Can you go a bit faster?
Inoutinoutinoutinout. I opened my eyes to confirm that this was really happening, and watched the wiry hairs of his happy trail grow closerfarthercloserfarther.
- Can you lick my balls a bit?
Out of determined self-preservation, I unlocked my leaden jaw, said in my best raspy voice I want you inside me, et cetera and finally was penetrated.
It took over twenty rabbit-like minutes. I queefed loudly when it ended.
This was only funny in hindsight. In the moment it felt like I’d volunteered to have someone gouge out my soul from the walls of my throat with an ice-cream scoop. To call the incident a violation would be semantically sloppy, but afterward, for a year or so, I could not find anything consoling in the bodies of others.
A fact about stasis: though commonly used in reference to a general state of stagnation, medically it refers to the slowing or stoppage of fluids or semifluids.
A story about stasis: After graduation, I moved to New York, started Job #1, stirred my stir-fry, and watched my Asian TV shows recommended by Mom. Shows with names like The Heartbreaker Surgeon and The Heartbroken Sommelier. They hailed from Japan and Korea; they bridged the solitude between Taipei and Brooklyn.
Job #1 was copyediting for a pop-science magazine—a poor man’s National Geographic, a poor me’s Research Assistantship. (My thesis advisor had unsurprisingly hired her other advisee, the one who never missed a meeting.)
Job #1 made for an easy tagline on dating apps. Male strangers enthused: My grandpa / grandma / dad / mom subscribes to that.
Job #1 paid close to nothing, just enough to rent a Brownsville half-basement with two other roommates. Just enough to subsist on frozen Chinatown dumplings that came in sacks like dog kibble bags.
Job #1 was interesting but Job #1 did not a career make.
I spent hours with the dramas every night, pining. I tried to intellectualize my fervor as a sexual homecoming. I tried to justify my habits by noting that the news was unbearable. (The year was 2016.) My ogling was out-of-body, however; in reality I would not have parted my legs had the Heartbroken Sommelier placed his slender fingers on my knees. The aftereffects of Bad Sex persisted. I had no real desire to exchange fluids (or, for that matter, semifluids).
Yet, once in a while, I would curl up in bed with my Amazon Primed vibrator that looked like a crayon on steroids. The bluish glow of the J- and K-dramas streaming illegally on drama888.com.tw would be the only source of light in the room—the millennial porn for homesick girls in need of self-consolation. The buildup was painfully slow, no matter how filthily the imagined scenes devolved: I would end up straddling the handsome hairless dimpled faces one by one as they lapped away diligently like cats. But I was only circling the drain. The gratification never came. Growing sweaty with physical strain and self-revulsion, I would concede defeat to anticlimax and set the sleep timer on my audiobook app. Somehow, I had grown inconsolable.
A fact about treading water: The western grebe is a water bird known for its mating ritual, during which couples pair together by running across the water surface in unison. After copulation, the male brings food to the female in what is known as courtship feeding.
A story about treading water: Boyfriend #2 first appeared under an airborne boat two meters overhead. We were in a museum and he was photographing said boat with a hefty Canon. He looked almost glossy from his resemblance to the magazine men stacked next to my bed. The inky pool of water, a part of the installation, had soaked through my left sock before he turned his lens to me, clicked the shutter once, lowered the camera, and said: I’d love to send you this photo—but you should also know that your foot is in the artwork.
We walked through the exhibition together, then to the museum café, where Boyfriend #2 told me he was a fashion photographer who only took meaningful pictures as a weekend indulgence. He was from Seoul and took me to dinner at his favorite K-town restaurant, ordering in his native tongue. Two weeks later we were boyfriend-girlfriend. We consoled each other, exhaling I think I’m in love with you. Later I discovered with slight surprise that he, unlike I, did not watch any dramas from his homeland and had not considered them at all when pacing the beginnings of our romance.
Boyfriend #2 had graduated from art school, where many of his peers vociferously denounced all those who did not #FreeTheNipple or #FeelTheBern. (It was 2017, but they were far from over it.) My wardrobe was what Mom called flattering: tight-fitting but well-covering. Women in Boyfriend #2’s life aimed for the inverse: wide-legged denim with loose, nipple-freeing tops. After a Bushwick party at which many a pair of pale breasts bounced without bondage, I wept to him in a moment of drunken weakness: I am the opposite of what you want. To which he, high, replied What? What? What the hell are you saying?
We both apologized the next morning. I began going braless on the weekends, celebrating my feminine #Freedom under baggy sweatshirts.
For one year, we spent our weekends indulging in whims and shared culture, taste-testing rice rolls from Cantonese bakeries, watching Japanese cult films at the Lincoln Center, and blue-balling solicitous hosts outside Little Italy restaurants—pretending to be tourists and cracking up when they nihao’ed back. At our anniversary dinner, I thought, fleetingly: We can have a future together, back in Asia, where we belong. Then he stiffened. A girl approached—5’10”, slim-jawed, halo-haired, loose frock made from what looked to be a floral tapestry barely covering her bronze, #Freed bosom. She gripped his shoulder, shook my hand with cool, smooth palms. Flicked her hair as she walked away too-slowly.
- Was that the runway model you used to sleep with?
Some hesitation. Some nodding.
- Oh, so that’s the kind of slut who lets a guy from Tinder stick his dick in her without a condom, giving his future girlfriend an STD scare that cost $250 to test?
- Fucking hell. (Slamming down cutlery.) Did you really have to go there? Fuck!
The next morning, I recounted a heavily censored version of the fight to my parents over the phone.
- Mom: Well, okay, what happens when you’re both middle-aged but the topless models are still twenty?
- Dad: Gan ta ma de! I didn’t raise my daughter to date a guy like this. You understand me? Fuck him!
Later, after Boyfriend #2 had become Ex-Boyfriend #2, I discovered with slight surprise that I, despite it all, could still pine after the dramas from his homeland. The surprise was directed at two distinct phenomena: my resilience; my recursive inability to learn.
A fact about melatonin: Though widely known as a hormone that regulates sleep cycles, it is also produced at night by nocturnal animals, for whom melatonin does not promote sleep.
A story about melatonin: Job #2 was copyediting for a pharmaceutical marketing agency. Job #2 paid significantly better than Job #1 but was more ethically dubious. I left trivia-filled Job #1 for lawsuit-filled Job #2 to, I told myself, save up for my impending PhD.
Then, somewhere between saving up for and receiving rejections from PhD programs, I lost the ability to sleep. A lasting believer in Mom’s motto of not admitting not-natural things into our bodies, I resolved not to seek any higher power than melatonin tablets, though by this point I was twenty-four years old and could no longer pull all-nighters without vomiting. I bought bottles of fast-acting rapid-dissolve melatonin. I went from 3- to 5- to 10-mg pills, from 1 to 5 to 10-a-day pills, then down again to 0 pills. I stopped acting; I rapidly dissolved.
Awake awake awake. I knew that I was leaving my self-esteem entirely in the hands of the distinguished institutions to which I’d applied. Things that friends and family said during this time:
- Mom: This is not natural.
- Dad: It’s okay if you want to come home.
- You should NEVER rely on external validation.
- Did you ever try gratitude journaling?
- I think the project of our twenties is to find our worth within ourselves, you know?
I knew all the phrases and I thought, Bull-fucking-shit. If you were worth something, somebody would tell you so; find you worth within yourself was the euphemism people used to gently dissuade you from continuing to await recognition.
I made no effort to cultivate Self-Worth because I fundamentally did not believe it to be real. One would not seek out God if one knew He did not exist; one would not track down Dragons if one knew They never lived; one would not strive after Self-Worth if one knew It was only a mean-spirited myth, perpetuated by people who had either found success or failed so consistently in life that, somewhere along the way, they began to believe in miracles.
My insomnia worsened enough that I nudged aside my distrust in the American health care system and looked up therapy options. All the top-reviewed options were financially ridiculous; I downloaded a text therapy app from a recurring subway ad.
Me to text therapist: If you already know that everything in life is a cycle and you’ll end up back at this point sooner or later, what’s the point of slotting yourself back into the circuit now that you’ve fallen out of it?
Text therapist to me: Lets unpack this.. why do you think you used the word “circuit?”
I held my thumb down on the app icon. All the icons began to wiggle and the little Xs popped up—I clicked it. Thus ended text therapy.
Question #1: If I go Home now, what was the point of coming all this way?
Question #2: If this is all there is, what is the point of going all the way?
Awake awake awake. I fantasized about dropping dead of a headache. The doctors would puzzle over the mystery of a reasonably healthy, mid-twenties woman kicking the bucket, and would crack open my skull to discover a medically unprecedented growth the size of a peach pit. Upon further examination, the growth would not only prove to be the culprit of my premature death, but also the cause of my recurrent desire for death throughout my abbreviated adulthood. The growth would debut in peer-reviewed papers, named after the smart, smart men who cracked open my skull.
Those who once sneered at my personal and professional choices would reverently relay over dinner: It wasn’t her fault that she didn’t accomplish anything, she was just Undiagnosed.
And I would be #Free! Asleep asleep asleep—without the gory logistics of suicide, without the posthumous guilt of breaking my parents’ hearts, without the crushing anxiety of living an aimless life all the way to its wrinkly end.
A fact about rain: Taiwan has three overlapping seasons of it per year—plum rain season from May to June, afternoon thunderstorms from June to August, typhoon season from June to October.
A story about rain: Today it is raining so torrentially that a hole opens in the ceiling of Fulton St Station like a spacetime vortex. Water gushes down with the force of a fire hydrant. It is disgusting, an abomination, a health hazard—but I catch myself marveling at the sight as one would at Niagara Falls. It is the first time since leaving Boyfriend #2 and starting Job #2 that I catch myself facing an objectively bad situation and not taking it personally.
When affection ceases, the memories of it are never quite of affection. They fossilize in the form of something much more absurd, like the sight of a postcoital penis, soft and sticky with recent exertion, cast in the glare of a suddenly switched-on light.
When unhappiness eases, the memories of it are never quite acute. (Fact: Pain is only felt in the brain, an organ that cannot itself feel pain.) But pieces of unwelcome recollections, immediate and abysmal, flutter into mind at random times of day like street pigeons. As though somebody is two paces behind me and every so often pinching the skin behind my neck with a pair of icy eyebrow tweezers. By the end of each day I am covered in a million tiny bruises.
The thing about facts is that you can never tell which ones will expire. (Fact: The Earth is flat. Fact: Pluto is a planet.) When I am in the thick of things, the fact of despair seems eternal. But day by day I go on, picking up what had spilled all over the floor. One morning I wake up and realize that, for the first time in a long time, I do not remember falling asleep.
I shower, I go to work, I vote in the midterm elections, I meet with friends, I book a plane ticket to Taiwan for the holidays and look forward to it. I look forward. I am unfazed by little failures like getting soaked on a subway platform—little failures that could once capsize a whole day.
A proverb about encountering water. Shun-shui-tui-zhou. Along-water-push-boat. Meaning, Use the current to your advantage. This saying has a negative connotation—opportunism being frowned upon by the ancients. Instead of riding the wave, they advocated for yu-shui-jia-qiao. Meet-water-build-bridge. Meaning, Roll up your sleeves. Meaning, Overcome.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, I say.
Ladies and Gentlemen, there is a—Queens—bound, express—train, now arriving.
I mind the gap.
I board the train.
Lin King is a writer, translator, and teacher from Taipei. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Joyland, The Margins, Columbia Journal, and Slice, among others, and has won the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. She is currently pursuing an MFA at Columbia University, where she also teaches first-year writing. http://lin-king.net/