Singing Lesson

travelers-tales
By Megan McNamer

Taking Communion in a karaoke bar.

In the late Seventies, when all of Taiwan was under construction, there was a bar in the capital city of Taipei called the Club Kotobuki. It was a place to go for Japanese businessmen missing the home office. It may still be there, I don’t know. I haven’t been back.

As a female American student of Chinese, trying to cobble together a living teaching English, I would never have found this bar on my own. But I was brought there regularly during the fall and winter of my twenty-second year by a tall, soft-spoken, slightly pigeon-toed Japanese man named Saito Susumu. He had been sent to Taiwan by the Mitsubishi Company for the specific task of learning enough Mandarin Chinese to conduct trade on what everyone then called “the mainland,” and this he later did. I, on the other hand, was there to learn Chinese for reasons less definable. I had been few places in the world. I had just graduated from a state university not far from my hometown with a liberal arts degree qualifying me to do nothing that I was aware of. I had a large and painful yearning. Looming larger was a horror of moving into settled adulthood still at home.

The Club Kotobuki was underground and private, small, dark, and intimate. You could choose to sit on low, dimly-lit couches around tables of teak, or up at the brighter bar, where shining glasses lined the opposite mirror. There, patrons kept personalized bottles of Johnnie Walker, to be brought forth by lovely, silky Chinese women. Kneeling at the tables, hovering at the bar, these women filled and refilled our glasses, their hair falling forward like the first strong strokes of calligraphy.

Pineapple wedges appeared, each speared with a tasseled toothpick. Orange slices had a section of rind already lifted away from the pulp. Paper-wrapped chopsticks were peeled, snapped apart, and used to eat lychee fruit. Thumbnail-sized sunflower seeds set off the sweet of the fruit. The salty shells were rolled around the tongue, then quietly cracked once, slid into a cupped hand, and deposited into a blue, porcelain bowl.

Drinking whiskey in that bar was like taking a cure. Or communion. The glossy hostesses assumed an air of careful indulgence, handling the ice tongs like ceremonial objects in their small, precise hands. They treated me, the only female patron ever there — decidedly unlovely in my battered, irreplaceable, size 9 shoes, mildewed shirts, and rumpled bandannas covering perpetually dirty hair (I just could not figure out how to exist gracefully in the urban Asian tropics) — the same way they treated the smooth-suited businessmen: as if I were a large child in need of care. I loved it, without shame.

The Club Kotobuki was quiet except for low conversation, which, as in most bars, became increasingly animated and noisy as the night wore on. It was customary then for patrons to get up and sing. There was a piano player on call, a microphone, more for effect than necessity, and a songbook with lyrics, seldom consulted. The singing seemed to move out of the conversation; it was rarely an orchestrated event. But a marked transformation took place. Otherwise straitlaced and apparently stoic men sang with their eyes closed and a quaver to their voices. Saito Susumu – usually impassive, even constricted – sang in a booming baritone, using various, idiosyncratic hand gestures. He placed his fingertips delicately on his chest. He slowly extended his hand up and out, to encompass us all.

Not knowing Japanese, I could only guess at the songs’ subjects, but it seemed they must have to do with desperate love, death, and despair. When finished, my friend would regard the microphone quizzically before laying it gently on the piano. Then he’d come tiptoeing back to his place at the bar to resume, with much clearing of the throat, his carefully constructed English conversation.

I myself never sang. That’s not to say I wasn’t in demand. As a Westerner, as a young, female customer, I was a novelty. I was urged to sing – by my partner, by the butterfly barmaids, by the businessmen in blue – but I did not. This refusal was completely contrary to my nature. I am a born showoff and back home I had been known to sing at parties, appropriately or not, long and loud. But I sensed my sweet place at the Club Kotobuki required reticence. I was to stay the silent, wide-eyed foreigner, a scruffy girl who was both nicely strange and an apparent stranger to the multifarious ways of the world. I made the barmaids even more exquisite, the businessmen more natty and knowing, and I gave my partner – simply because I was a Westerner and a woman — the worldly look I knew he wanted.

But I have always regretted not, finally, doing it. I have always regretted not singing.

My life in Taipei felt so out-of-joint. I walked awkwardly down the streets, and everywhere I went I seemed to alter the landscape. The street vendors, the taxi drivers, the open-mouthed children – even things themselves, the fruit stand awning, the sign at the bus stop in Chinese characters, the laundry hanging from the temple, the bamboo scaffolding encasing every other building – seemed to cease normal activity or states of being as I approached and assume unnatural poses, with all attention brought to bear upon me. I couldn’t see them clearly, I couldn’t see what they were. After I passed I felt a subtle shuffling behind my back as these things and beings fell back into place and resumed their unfathomable lives.

I lived in an old, wooden, palm-draped house behind a cement wall studded with shards of Coke bottles, right in the center of the city. The house dated from the Japanese occupation period (the wall, I think, came later), and was scheduled to be demolished, along with the rest of the street – a busy, barely two-lane road of tiny shops with specific trades: a shoe repair place; a grass mat shop; a funeral store selling paper money, toy-sized paper cars, and paper televisions; the moon cake bakery; the shaved ice stand; the small tailor shop that displayed sumptuous white wedding dresses on ghostly pale mannequins. Buses and trucks rumbled by just outside the gate, but in my yard there was a carp pool and papaya trees.

The rooms of the house were rented to foreign students by a Chinese couple who had five grown sons living in the States. The house was in terrible disrepair. The roof leaked during the frequent torrential rains. When typhoons arrived, glib deejays from the USAF radio station advised us to cover our windows to avoid flying glass. In the clammy winter the walls and the already gray, flea-infested tatami mats went white with mildew. Hand-sized spiders rustled in the communal bathroom (once I rose from the toilet and a particularly hairy one lumbered out from under the lid). In the shared kitchen area, whenever someone approached, the walls reabsorbed rats. The carp pool was clogged with mud, and the papaya trees were nearly buried in a jumble of brush, boards, and tangled electrical wire, home to yowling cats.

I chose this house because of the location and the cheap rent, and, initially, it fulfilled some of my more romantic ideas about life abroad. I was led there by the hand as far as the front gate by a former tenant who had chosen it, I’m sure, for the same reasons. I didn’t stop to think why he was living somewhere else. After I started teaching English it occurred to me that my Chinese students did not live the way I did.

The Wangs – the large, sloth-like, perpetually bathrobed landlord and his tiny, sorrowful wife – kept to their own quarters and we kept to ours. There were three American women, counting me. Gwen was from New Jersey and had money and a good education and was out on a lark before picking a graduate school. Shari was from Los Angeles and had no money and worked hard at her Chinese, hoping for a job in the travel business. Her Vietnamese boyfriend had a questionable visa and was struggling at his hole-in-the-wall restaurant. There were two sallow Frenchmen who stayed closed off in their tiny room, laughing. A fussy Australian named Andrew sipped tea in a windowless shed behind the main house. Gretel, a morose German from then West Berlin, scuffled around in the crashing heat and humidity, chain smoking in a heavy, misshapen wool sweater.

I was embarrassed to talk on the phone in the hall. It was a pay phone the Wangs had installed for their lodgers – you who had to dig up the right kind of coin and calls were three minutes. I always carried a piece of paper with me to the dark, recessed phone shelf with my initial phrases written down. Usually I was calling one of my students, who would immediately switch to English upon hearing my voice.

I felt an instant, inexplicable guilt when I came to Taiwan that I couldn’t speak much Chinese and this feeling kept me from learning. It also made me feel alienated and angry at the local people and at the same time sad at our separateness. I spent long hours in my room reading pirated copies of novels like The Thorn Birds, popular that year, instead of studying Chinese or venturing out to practice it. I considered time spent with Americans or any English-speaking foreigners mostly wasted, but I had no real Chinese friends. My room felt unoccupied even when I was in it. When it wasn’t raining, the dulled sun held dust in shafts of light. Once I went down to the library of the United States Information Service, where the air conditioning was on so high you had to limit your visit, and watched a video called “A Tribute to Duke Ellington,” with Gladys Knight narrating. Then I cried in the bathroom. I ate peanuts and bananas for dinner, bought from vendors across the street.

After several months of this kind of life, I met Saito. This is what I called him, with some uncertainty. (“Saito san” seemed too formal, “Susumu” too familiar, and, to my ears, silly.) He had been invited, as I had, to go to the seaside with Donald Yu, an American-Chinese from San Francisco, also a student of Mandarin and a recent college graduate. Donald was in hiding from his first ever job, back home, as a computer programmer. His task had been figuring out “kill ratios” for nuclear weapons. The job made him feel bleak, he said, as if explanation were required. He was taking a break.

We went by bus to the seashore, switching twice. It was my first trip out of the city. Saito and I were to provide protection for Donald by acting as a buffer between him and the leader of the excursion, a Taiwanese girl who had taken the name of Debby. Debby had an unreciprocated crush on Donald, or Yu Ing-Long, as he, in turn, preferred to be called. This was the name given him by his Chinese teacher, since he had no real Chinese name, except for the Yu. The “Ing-Long” had to do, Donald said, with a dragon.

I had a Chinese name, too. It was Mai Jia-Ming, which invariably made Chinese laugh. They said it should belong to a boy, since Jia-Ming meant “household-intelligent,” or, conceivably, “the intelligent one of the household.” Mai means wheat. (My father was a cattle rancher then and also grew hay.) I’d chosen components of other names that were offered by my Chinese teacher, names such as Ming-Ming (“little charming one” – a different twist on the “ming”) and Jia-Ren (“house person”). I’d chosen the components and scrambled them.

Donald insisted on calling me by my made up Chinese name, and we were all to call him by his Chinese name, and the Chinese girl, as I’ve said, was Debby. Saito stayed Saito.

He didn’t speak much, and when he did, in English, his voice was very soft, with sentences riding on a long exhalation of breath, as if his otherwise ramrod, closed-up self had found a means of escape. I felt him watching me throughout the trip, and I resented it, just as I resented all the solemn stares on buses, in shops, and on the streets, making me feel sweaty and gawky and beleaguered. I didn’t like the way he wore knit slacks and leather shoes to the beach or the way he minced along the sand, and I disdained the shopping bag he carried his lunch and I-didn’t-know-what-else in. It had a picture on the side of a Japanese film starlet.

I hadn’t brought a lunch and was starving. A vendor came by selling what I had always taken to be entrails basted with fat. Pig gut-on-a-stick. To my horror, Saito was buying me one. Yu Ing-Long was up ahead with Debby. Saito handed the food to me and waited, his precise face polite, nothing more. I hesitated. Longing mixed with my anger. I bit. Saito smiled.

“Rice,” he sighed.

That was the turning point in our relationship, and eventually we became friends. He ordered decent meals for me in real restaurants, took me to temples and festivals I otherwise would have missed, and showed me how to figure out the buses. I, in turn, helped him with his English. Perched on bar stools, sipping our whiskey, we had long, stilted conversations in which he lectured me about something to do with the Meiji era. I think we were actually involved in a careful courtship, but it never was acknowledged, nor did it come to anything. He saw, I felt, how paralyzed I was, and I appreciated being known. That was all.

I came to love Taiwan, although I never really did like it. My first night back in the States I lay in bed at my sister’s quiet apartment in Portland and felt stricken with loss because I couldn’t feel the thundering trucks, smell the acid combination of rotting vegetables, sewage, and diesel, or hear the 2 a.m. call of the garbage man, who had always sounded as though he were being disemboweled.
If only they had insisted a little longer. At the Club Kotobuki. I would have stirred slowly from my place next to Saito at the bar and slid off the stool to the accompaniment of cheerful and doting applause. I would have picked up the microphone as if it were dangerous yet familiar, conferred briefly with the piano player, closed my eyes, and sung a perfect song – maybe in Chinese, maybe in Japanese, maybe in a language none of us knew at all.


Megan McNamer’s essays have appeared in Sports Illustrated, The Sun, Salon, Islands, and several anthologies. Her fiction has received Finalist awards in contests with New Millennium, Glimmer Train, the University of New Orleans Study Abroad contest, Writers at Work, and the St. Lawrence Press Big Moose Prize. She was executive director of the Missoula Writing Collaborative, a writers-in-the-schools program, from 2001-2014.

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