Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Days for Looking at the Sea

When I was living in Taipei in 1979-80, I became a devotee of Taiwan literature; and it was reading a story by Huang Chunming called "Days for Looking at the Sea" that opened that door for me.

I have a very clear memory of reading the story in the library at the Inter-University Center for Chinese Studies (the "Stanford Center") where I was a student. I am nearly certain that I read it in English translation in the anthology Chinese Stories from Taiwan: 1960-1970. Eventually I would plunge into trying to read stories by the Taiwan writers in Chinese, but this was early in my time there and I was still getting my bearings.

Moreover, I have a very clear memory of my mental image of this story -- a glittering ocean surface, like the one pictured above. I think that as I struggled with the overwhelming set of new experiences -- my first time in the tropics, in a foreign country, in a place where they didn't speak English, in a place where they didn't even use the alphabet! -- it helped to have this beautiful definition of place on which to focus. (It helped that the beauty of the ocean, and the contemplation of water and sun and waves, was something I could relate to based on my summer trips to the Jersey Shore as a child.) And, in fact, this renewing symbol of place seems very much to be what "looking at the sea" meant for the woman in the story . . . .

The story is set in a fishing town on the east coast of Taiwan. It is about a prostitute who determines to have a baby, and so selects as the father a likely candidate from among her customers (most of whom are workers in the local fishing fleet), gets pregnant, and heads back to the tiny town in which she was born, in order to have the baby.

I think I was simply taken by the optimism and romance of the story line, particularly by the notion of hope and new life embodied in the baby. Just last week, I tracked down a copy of the book in the library and re-read the story, and found that, while the story is every bit as optimistic and "feel-good" as I remembered, there is a lot of realistic detail that I didn't fully engage with at the time. Or perhaps it's more correct to say that I engaged with it at a subconscious level, where it sat lodged for many years without being processed to any degree.

The details of the young woman's work as a prostitute are very harsh, although the portrayal is softened by the description of her friendship with another young woman. As I re-read the story, I remarked on how frequently the Taiwan literature portrayed prostitution, as well as a range of related "hostess" work, by women. I think I now understand that Huang Chunming was trying to document and force recognition of the phenomenon of sex work by women -- and the oppression of women -- in Taiwan, although it was certainly not something that the establishment in Taiwan wanted anyone drawing attention to. Part of the way Huang got away with it was by embedding his realistic descriptions in stories of broader scope, with a great deal of psychological interest that transcended the specific social phenomena he happened to be highlighting.

Another thing that came through very clearly -- something I distinctly do remember grasping consciously the first time I read the story -- was the very gentle Taiwan "way of being" that is conveyed in the story. It is epitomized by the way the young woman plays with her friend's baby when she encounters them on the train. She cuddles the baby and talks to it about the ocean scenes outside the train window:
"Look! Look! That's the sea!
"Sea water's salty! And there's lots of fish in it.
"Some of them are as big as a train.
"And some are as small as your little thumb.
"Heng-ya, heng-ya! Look!
"There's a boat!
"The seamen on the boat catch fish.
"They catch fish for our Lu Yen.
"Lu Yen says, 'I don't want blue fish.'
"So the fishermen go catch yellow ones.
"Lu Yen says, 'I don't want yellow fish.'
"So the fishermen go catch green ones.
"Lu Yen says, 'You dumbbells, I want spotted ones' . . . " (p. 206)
This was a kind of innocent banter that -- even at the time, even with my rudimentary Chinese -- I could recognize as true to reality.

Or consider this other example, in which the young woman encounters someone she recognizes as she arrives in her childhood town after an absence of many years:
     "Uncle Lucky, are you weeding the sweet potatoes?"
     The man was mystified and excited by the call.
     "Oh! Yes . . . Who are you? How do you know me?" The voice, wafting across the distance, quivered with pleasure. Wanting to increase his happiness she answered:
     "You built the Earth God shrine at the cutoff all by yourself. Doesn't everybody know that?"
     "Yes . . . yes . . . That was twenty-three years ago. After I sell this crop of sweet potatoes I'm going to fix it up again!" Then he continued even more excitedly: "Hey, lady, who're you looking for at Keng-ti?"
     "I'm Sung the Capon-maker's youngest girl . . . "
    "What? Is Sung's yougest girl so big already? Then . . . then you're Mei-Tzu?"
     "Yes . . . yes, I'm Mei-tzu."(p. 220)
Looking back over this and many other examples of how people interact in "Days for Looking at the Sea," it occurred to me that if we were just talking about a single exchange, it might not seem so significant. One might conclude that "life is like this everywhere" and "this could appear in any story, from any place." But taken as a whole, all of the examples add up to convey the very unique character of the place.

And so I embarked on trying to read the stories of the Taiwan writers. There are many other layers of meaning in this story that I haven't tried to describe -- for instance, the discourse on the Mainlander rule that is woven through this and many of Huang's stories -- is important in the work of many/most of the other Taiwan writers. This work also bears an important relationship to the literature and culture of Japan. And then there is the whole discourse on (disappearing) nature.

But I'll leave those topics for another day. Right now, it's July . . . and I'm in Chicago . . . and it's a perfect day for looking at the sea.

(Page references are to the 1976 Columbia University Press edition of Chinese Stories from Taiwan: 1960-1970, in which "Days for Looking at the Sea" is translated by Earl Wieman under the title, "A Flower in the Rainy Night.")

More about Taipei c. 1979 . . . . 

Related  posts

I could go on and on about City of Sadness: about everything from the sound of slippers scraping across the floor to the history of the 228 incident that the film illuminates . . . the funeral scene, and the wedding scene . . . . But more than anything, it's about Taiwan nature, Taiwan separateness, and Taiwan rebelliousness.

(See Taiwan Through "City of Sadness")

The problem: the U.S. "pivot to Asia."

The opportunity: asking ourselves, "What would we do differently if we revised our myths of Asia?"

(See U.S. Militarism in Asia: THINK DIFFERENT!)

Within the first day or so of being there it was pointed out to me (and to all of us) that there were a set of customs and behaviors that we would observe in the people living in Taiwan, and that we might do well to adapt to some of these customs and behaviors if we wanted to fit in.

(See Long Life, Connected Lives)