Amy vs. Evil

By • Aug 29th, 2011 • Category: Diary

banerThe following is an excerpt from a forthcoming collection of short stories about living abroad in Taiwan.

Amy doesn’t have many enemies.

As a kindergartener, she met another Amy – Amy H. – who had a superiority complex beyond adolescence from being listed earlier alphabetically and never passed an opportunity to point out that she was “Amy #1.”

Some years later, while working a part-time retail job in high school, Amy #2 met her second nemesis. The manager was, as she tells it, “just as jerk.” A micro-manager, he harbored aspirations far beyond working the dayshift at a shopping mall in small-town Illinois, which manifested themselves in busywork and vindictive scheduling. skirt

Include things on the top shelf, riding a bicycle, swimming and women in miniskirts, and the field of adversaries widens slightly.

But Amy’s bashful nature makes forming relationships – good or bad ones – a slow process. That’s why it’s bizarre that she developed a pair of foes during the first 18 months in Taiwan. It’s particularly baffling since the Taiwanese are some of the friendliest people in the world thanks to a belief system called “guānxī.” Loosely translating as “relationship,” guānxī is a social web that not only connects you to everybody you meet, but subsequently to everybody they know. The guānxī net is cast far and wide with enough room for your closest companion down to the stranger with whom you exchanged pleasantries in a cafe three weeks ago. Acquaintances of acquaintances become friends, and friends of friends get treated like family. Spending time with a person publicly vouches for their integrity, and everyone you’ve met is in line to be linked to all those whom you’ll cross paths with in the future.

It works something like this:

A man goes to a neighborhood fruit stand to buy an apple. On his first trip, the apple might cost NT$20. (About USD$0.70.) The initial price is a little high, but the shopkeeper has no relationship with the customer, and making a couple extra bucks is cunning business. The next time the person stops at the fruit stand, the shopkeeper will drop the price to $18 as thanks for the repeat business. Things will stay this way for a few visits while the two build a rapport. After some time, the deal will sweeten, and $18 now affords the man two apples. The original price is long forgotten, and the discount becomes the new normal.

One afternoon, the customer brings a friend to the fruit stand. The friend selects a plump, red apple and hands the shopkeeper $20, as indicated on the sign. Laughing, the shopkeeper gives him back $2, … and a second apple. The discount price is not only the new normal for the first customer, but also for his friends.

But guānxī works two ways. If the either man were to someday offend the shopkeeper, both customers would lose their discounts. Because the company a person keeps is their representation, it’s an island rife with guilt by association. Everyone is connected, for better and for worse.

Thus, forming one nemesis in Taiwan can be risky. Having two nemeses is downright reckless. Who knows whether a person talking loudly on a cell phone has a friend with a cousin with a neighbor who’s got anger issues and might show up at your doorstep? It’s best to smile politely and turn your headphones up to drown out the loud talker.

Guānxī governs all exchanges and blurs the lines between social and professional interactions.

One July, some friends came to visit Asia. Rachel, Amy’s best friend since childhood, and her husband, Tyler, made the cross-continental trek to spend a week gallivanting around the island. Atop their list of must-dos was a trip to Kenting, a national park area and beach town on Taiwan’s southern tip.kenting

The popular vacation destination is similar to many getaways around the world. The main strip mostly consists of safari shops and sandal-clad visitors wandering from souvenir stands hocking postcards and pricey key chains into tiki bars with names like Lulu and The Surf Shack. Adorable bed and breakfasts offset affordable rates by renting scooters to guests for guided tours along the miles of scenic coastline with mountain ranges that dissolve into fine-sand beaches as they bleed out into the Pacific Ocean.

Rachel and Tyler had their hearts set on Kenting. So much so that within two hours of arriving, we’d changed into our bathing suits and darted down to a secluded shore nestled a few minutes behind our hotel. It wasn’t one of the popular beaches, where jumbo umbrellas are packed with families from dawn to dusk. Those were minutes up the road. This beach stayed hidden behind thick trees and primarily was used by guests of an adjacent resort. As we soaked in a few rays – Rachel and Tyler swam in the ocean while Amy and I slathered on several coats of sunscreen – the four of us commented on how empty this swathe of shoreline appeared. There were a few fellow vacationers, a couple of fishermen, one stray dog, some floating debris and firework shreds, and, as Rachel’s arm soon found out, countless jellyfish.

Big, aggressive ones with good aim and the unique ability to send a church-going woman into a series of expletives, ending the afternoon’s seaside endeavor.

Back at the hotel, we asked the attendant about the closest medical clinic so that Rachel could procure ointment for the swelling. Amy and I had stayed at the same bed and breakfast six months earlier and had developed a first-name basis with the woman behind the front desk, who doubled as the B&B’s owner.

“There’s no clinic in town,” she said picking up the phone to make a call. “The closest doctor is about 25 minutes away at the hospital. Here, I’ll get your friend directions.”

Guānxī was in effect.

A few minutes went by before a man hurried into the lobby of the hotel. He looked frazzled but friendly.

“This is my cousin,” the hotel manager told us. “He’ll drive to the hospital.”

“Drive? Us?” I asked.

“I’ll take all four of you in my car, stay with you until the doctor has finished, and then drive you back here,” he said. “It’s the least I could do.”

“The least he could do for what?” I wondered. The least he could do because his cousin’s hotel happened to be next to a beach that happened to have a jellyfish that happened to sting my friend who happened to be vacationing in Taiwan?

This was guānxī at its fullest, cemented by his apology on the way to the hospital.

“I’m sorry, I have to drive a bit faster,” he said. “I want to get there quickly to make sure everything is OK.”

Sorry? He took the time to drive four strangers to a hospital and planned to stay with us to help translate any documents; yet he was the one apologizing. If anyone should have apologized, it was Amy and I for only buying a box of cookies as a “thank you” present following the overly kind gesture. Our pre-existing relationship with the hotel owner had connected her cousin to our friends, and meant the group of us would spend the afternoon together in a hospital waiting room.

Guānxī draws people together in times of happiness and of crisis. Residing on an island where friends act united by causes feels like living as a marginal character in The Avengers. But for every Taiwanese local who’ll drive a person to see a doctor, there are the jellyfish that sent her there.

They are the nemeses.

There are keys that set apart a truly divisive nemesis from ordinary villains. It’s what makes The Joker scarier than Pennywise, why nobody mistakes Doctor Doom for the Tin Man, and why Lex Luthor didn’t grow up to be Bunsen Honeydew. All great adversaries – Shredder, Cobra Commander, Mumm-Ra, Megatron, Skeletor, etc. – are more than evil minds balancing bloodlust and greed. They’re calculated, painfully crafted reflections of their opposition. case1

It requires a bit of luck, too, for a hero to stumble upon such an equally matched archenemy. Time and place are important. Take Batman out of Gotham City, and the story gets a lot less interesting. Nobody would want to read a comic book about Spider-Man slinging webs at jaywalkers.

It’s a secret The Justice League doesn’t want to admit: Superheroes need enemies, not the other way around. Without villains, there’d be no one to save. Without people to save, Superman is just a showoff in a cape trying to outrun speeding bullets, jump over buildings, and stop locomotives with his bare hands. Without a villain, those aren’t the actions of a hero; they’re the actions of a drunken adrenaline junky.

All iconic super villains share a few traits.

SKILLS: They need to be good at what they do. A bumbling crook isn’t believable as a criminal mastermind. It’s the equivalent of a nerdy girl in a film who takes off her glasses and reveals she’s stunning. How had nobody noticed? From the onset, delinquents need to be convincingly corrupt, believably bad in order to move up to super-villain status. To be a mad scientist, one has to first be smart enough to be a scientist. To be a terrifying strongman, the character has to start with an intimidating physique. Being an iconic nemesis requires a certain amount of natural ability, which thins the herd through archenemy Darwinism.

AN EDGE: The villain needs to possess some kind of an upper hand. They need to be stronger, smarter, wealthier or more powerful than the heroes they oppose; otherwise, thwarting them wouldn’t be a challenge.

MYOPIC ASPIRATIONS: To be a truly great nemesis, the character mustn’t ever think small. Troubled teen becomes gang leader. Gang leader becomes city overlord. City overlord becomes corrupt politician. Politician targets global domination. Bigger always is better. Production equals power. This is especially true in their quest to destroy the hero, which becomes top priority. A captivating villain’s existence needs to revolve around that solitary aspiration. Although their crimes need to be large-scale, each of the villain’s plans needs to include a subplot devised solely to obliterate the good guy.

REOCCURRENCES: Nemeses need to make frequent appearances. Showing up once, getting vanquished and disappearing doesn’t make a worthy adversary. And truly evil villains wouldn’t make a singular appearance, defeat the hero, and not come back for more. To be a true thorn in the side, they must seize every chance to disrupt the status quo. One-off villains make for decent stories; nemeses are largely remembered by how frequent a problem they can be.

SYMPATHY: Even the most hated evildoers have supporters. Entire series are dedicated to telling the complex back stories of history’s most-reviled people. The more human a super villain is revealed to be, the more despicable the evil actions seem. It’s this similarity to the hero that makes their dynamic so gripping. If the two see themselves in the other, the hatred is supplemented by fearful realizations of how a few divergent steps could have lead to swapped paths.

Somehow, Amy had unearthed two formidable rivals who met the criteria in less than as many years.

The first of her nemeses was downright inhumane, as in, not human. It was a dog. Specifically, a white toy poodle whose owners ran an electronics shop around the corner from our apartment. puppy

The store sold everything from clunky, Zack Morris cell phones to antiquated Sony Walkman and Discman models. The niche surplus brought limited clientele and, in turn, provided the owners’ friends plenty of free time to play original Playstation games (also for sale at the store) on a vintage RCA console TV. Canines lack the dexterity for video game controllers, which meant this toy poodle often was left to its own devises patrolling the front doorstep.

Each day when Amy walked to the bus stop, convenience store, park or anywhere else in the neighborhood, the miniature guard dog would perk up at attention.

The poodle was, by all indications, good at being a dog. It had four legs and a wet nose, and it didn’t meow. If left unsupervised, chances are it would drink from the toilet and drag its butt across the carpet. Despite not being much larger than a sub sandwich, it was unquestionably canine. (Nemesis requirement 1: Skills? Check.)

The dog looked innocent from a distance. Quiet. Soft. Tiny. It sat calmly outside the store’s entrance, barely noticing each passerby as its cottony fur swayed in the breeze. Customers and pedestrians alike – young and old – would walk in front of the stoop without so much as an acknowledging huff from the poodle.

But not Amy. Whenever she approached, the dog took notice. Whether in a group or by herself, when Amy walked in front of the store, the dog hopped up, bared its rice grain fangs, and yelped rapidly as though someone were tugging on its manicured tail. When she’d turn the corner, it would lie back down and resume watching ants roam about the sidewalk. At first, Amy wrote it off as a freak coincidence, yet quickly realized this was their regular routine. A parade of Taiwanese citizens could pass in front of the shop and be ignored, but as long as Caucasian Amy was within sight, the dog remained agitated.

The Supremacist Dog, as we came to call it, hated her. It despised her. It loathed her with every one of its designer shampooed curls. This canine racism played out nearly every day for more than a year. (Reoccurrences? Check.)

Some days, the dog would see Amy coming and gear up for a lengthy bark. Other times, she’d be able to tiptoe almost entirely past the shop before the poodle caught a glimpse of her and came barreling out of the store screeching. Occasionally, not often, but occasionally, Amy witnessed the dog sneak behind its pen so to ambush her with a surprise attack. It lived to hate Amy. (Myopic aspirations? Check.)

The problem was that Amy couldn’t prove any of this. Even if she could, what would she say? “Excuse me, sir. … Yes, I’ll wait until you pause ‘Metal Gear Solid.’ … No, I wouldn’t like to buy a Tamagotchi. … I’m sorry to bother you, but I think your dog dislikes me because I’m white.”

It was the dog’s ultimate advantage. Amy couldn’t do anything about it. (An edge? Check.) If the dog barked whenever she walked by, it could be attributed to natural instinct, just a dog being a dog. But if Amy were to get into a shouting match with a toy poodle, then she’d be crazy. No matter how convinced Amy was that this pup was a devious supremacist, it didn’t matter. She had been rendered helpless by her species.

Things continued this way for some time. Amy would stroll past the shop, and the dog would be sent into a tizzy.

In retrospect, the animal showed signs of weakness that, at the time, we gave little credence. Most notably, it wouldn’t venture off the store’s stoop. No matter how ferocious it pretended to be, the dog would stop abruptly at the edge of the step as though it felt safe and invincible behind an invisible fence.

Things came to a head one afternoon while Amy was inside the neighborhood 7-11. Stopping for a carton of milk and cookies, she found herself face to face with the shop owner who’d put down the Playstation controller long enough to pick up a few groceries of his own. As he turned down another aisle, Amy realized he was cradling the poodle against his chest like an infant. Her initial reaction was to duck behind a Pringles display and avoid the spectacle that surely would ensue. Before she could move, her eyes met the poodle’s.


Not even a snarl

No barking. No yelping.


The owner made his way through the store, and Amy kept her eyes locked on the dog’s face that was barely peaking over the man’s shoulder. As the pair neared the counter, he pivoted just enough to unveil the pooch’s full body. And that’s when she saw it. The Supremacist Dog … being carried through 7-11 … dressed head to toe like a bumblebee. (Sympathy? Check.)

Amy had donned a fair share of unflattering costumes during her theater days, and she recognized the look in the poodle’s eyes. The look pleads, “Please don’t tell anyone you saw me like this.”

From that day on, things between her and the poodle felt different. It still made noise each time she walked past, but the barks no longer sounded vicious. The poodle continued to scamper aggressively out of the store, and Amy would continue to scurry by the entrance with a fearful pep in her step, but the charade felt forced. In fact, it echoed with old-times’ sake, like the two were pretending to dislike the other more than they really did. After the bee costume incident, the two had reached a mutual understanding forged from suppressing embarrassment.

That’s more than can be said about Amy’s other Taiwan nemesis.

In every facet, Amy’s second nemesis was a superior villain to the Supremacist Dog. The owner of a local Greek restaurant didn’t look like much, but during our time in Taiwan, she’d morph from a simple restaurateur into Amy’s mightiest adversary. For starters, she was human, which was an inherent advantage of size and intellect over Amy’s canine opposition.uzo

By most accounts, the woman dubbed The Restaurateur was the antithesis of Amy. She was tall, roughly 5’10”. Almost a foot taller than Amy. She owned an eatery, which implied that she could cook. Amy regularly burns microwave popcorn. She spoke loudly and could be heard throughout her establishment. Amy’s voice tops out just above a whisper. She moved quickly. Amy doesn’t. She’s authoritative. Amy isn’t.

She was utterly unapproachable.

Outwardly, she oozed femininity. Her straight, black hair hung to her lower back and grazed the belt loops on her Daisy Duke shorts. She was tanner than most Taiwanese women who put a premium on a porcelain complexion, which placed her heritage likely in Thailand or the Philippines. Her nails were kept finely manicured with intricate designs that coordinated with her exotic, smoky eye makeup and shimmering lip gloss. She habitually wore low-cut lace shirts with frills and bows in the patterns. She was confident in her good looks, but flaunted them with enough dignity and mystique to still demand respect.

Her sensual exterior was matched only by her tough-as-nails demeanor.

She gave abrupt orders to staff members without wasting a breath to second-guess the commands. She glided briskly and always with a purpose, like the kind of no-nonsense businesswomen who awakes at sunrise without an alarm. Her toned arms and legs implied she went to the gym to bulk up, not slim down.

She was a hybrid of girly girl and manly man. The type of woman who’d ride a pink Harley-Davidson motorcycle, or who’d take a pet Rottweiler for a walk wearing stiletto heels. She didn’t mean to be intimidating; it came naturally, as it does for any memorable super villain.

As with many noteworthy adversaries, things began rather innocuously.

Amy and I had eaten at this Greek restaurant frequently during our first year in Taiwan. For the first 12 months, the only thing memorable about the visits was the scrumptious food. The baba ghanoush had a perfect pinch of garlic. The salad had a decent number of olives. The white wine was a satisfying appertife. The menu kept us coming back every couple of weeks.

One evening, Amy fell back into one of her defining habits. She ordered an appetizer as her main course. It’s one of her go-to dining moves. Chicken fingers. Grilled cheese. Potato skins. If they aren’t listed under “Starters,” she usually can find them on the kids’ menu. On the night in question, she had a hankering for mozzarella sticks.

Taiwanese dining has its roots in China. For centuries, meals were served in what Westerners commonly refer to as “family style.” Orders were placed for the group – not individuals – and dishes came out of the kitchen one by one. They were set on a Lazy Susan, and everyone shared. The local palate expanded over generations to include international cuisine like Greek, Turkish, French, Italian and Mexican, but family style remained the serving method of choice. Today, even when patrons order individual meals with no intent to share – like sandwiches or soup – the food is brought out of the kitchen immediately upon completion.

The trick is to order entrees that take about the same time to prepare. If one person orders a chef salad, but the other orders a 24 oz. steak cooked well-done, somebody is going to spend a lot of time staring at their meal while waiting for the second dish to arrive.

Restaurants that cater to foreigners do a better job of coordinating when things are delivered, but meals still tend to get served somewhat sporadically. Ordering a main course off the “Starters” menu complicates things further, as appetizers already are paced to come out long before the other dishes.

Amy usually clarified to the server that she wanted the appetizer as her meal and not beforehand. But on this night, she forgot to make the distinction. That meant the waitress brought out a piping hot basket of fried cheese sticks about 20 minutes before my gyro. By this point, The Restaurateur had circled our table a couple of times and noticed the mozzarella sticks going untouched.

“Is there a problem with your food?” the owner eventually asked Amy.

“Oh, no,” Amy replied in a startled voice. “I’m just waiting.”

“For what?”

“For his food to arrive,” Amy said, pointing my direction to deflect some of the blame for the uneaten mozzarella sticks.

I felt my stomach drop a little. “Don’t bring me into this,” I thought. “You ordered the appetizer; accept full responsibility!”

“You should eat them. They will get cold,” she told Amy.

“That’s OK. I’ll wait,” Amy said apologetically.

With that, the owner snatched the mozzarella sticks off the table and took a bite out of one.

“They’re already cold,” she said. “We’ll bring you new ones.”

The story could have ended there, with my gyro and Amy’s mozzarella sticks arriving at the same time after a silly misunderstanding. Instead, for the remainder of the meal, Amy apologized profusely for what had transpired.

“Let me pay for two orders,” she implored the owner.

“Don’t be foolish.”

“I want to pay for two, it’s my fault,” Amy would rephrase.

“Of course not.”

“Please, here is money for both baskets,” Amy offered.

“It’s a dead issue.”

Back and forth, the two women bantered over six measly sticks of breaded, fried cheese. After a half-hour, the owner had enough.

“Honey, it’s my restaurant,” she said in a firm voice. “I can do what I want.”

An edge? Check. case2

That was the sobering truth. No matter how much businesses claim that the customer always is right, as long as we’re in their establishment, we’re on their turf. What they say ultimately goes. The Restaurateur wasn’t evil in a malicious way. Just that her confidence triggered Amy’s insecurities to a crippling degree. In her presence, Amy became overwhelmed with self-doubt, terrified of making a mistake and coming across as incapable. She could barely function, feeling that her every move was critiqued. Amy couldn’t help but perpetually feel indebted – like a burden – to The Restaurateur.

The insecurities of that night still hadn’t settled by the next time we visited the restaurant. Amy was certain she had looked helpless in the eyes of the owner, and was visibly shaken by the prospects of making the same mistake. I assured her that nobody would remember the mozzarella stick ordeal, and as proof, she should order them again for good measure. But Amy didn’t believe me.

And she shouldn’t have, either.

“Do you want them as an appetizer or your meal?” the owner came out of the kitchen to clarify upon seeing the ticket.

That was all Amy needed to hear. Her fears had been realized. She was certain that she’d been labeled as a troublesome customer, blacklisted by a sassy restaurateur. The problem with avoiding this particular Greek eatery, though, was that it was quite good. We’d fallen in love with the food, which was on par with any Greek menu we had Stateside. Avoiding the owner meant not getting to indulge in the finer things her restaurant offered. But we wouldn’t be coming back to this place until the dust settled.

Well, not together, anyway. That’s what “to-go” orders are for.

After realigning our dining habits to bypass this restaurant entirely, Amy got a craving for pizza. It was during Rachel and Tyler’s visit – post-jellyfish attack – and we wanted to showcase some of Taichung’s better Western restaurants. Amy still was disinterested in venturing into the dining room to face potentially snarky comments from the owner, but was happy to place a phone order if I agreed to pick it up.

Four personal pizzas. One order of mozzarella sticks. Scheduled for pick-up at 8 p.m.

After parking my scooter in front of the restaurant, I weaved my way through the bustling patio, into the dining room, and back toward the cash register.

“Hi,” I said sheepishly, a bit embarrassed that it had been a few months since our last visit. “I’m here to pick-up an order for my girlfriend, Amy.”

The owner grew a look as though she’d solved the missing piece to a puzzle.

“Amy is your girlfriend?” she asked.

I couldn’t decipher whether there was added emphasis somewhere in that sentence. Was it intended as a matter of clarification to ensure I picked up the correct order, or did she mean, “Amy is your girlfriend?” like she had just put a face to the voice on the phone.

“Where is your car?” she asked. “We’ll help you carry the food out.”

The Restaurateur hadn’t inquired about a car when Amy placed the order on the phone. In fact, nothing hinted that a to-go order was out of the ordinary. Only after she realized who called in the order, did obstacles emerge.

“I don’t have a car,” I explained. Owning car in Taiwan was like having a Porsche back home. They weren’t unheard of, but they were unnecessary luxuries that were more of a hassle than they’re worth. “I drove my scooter.”

“Our pizzas are too big for a scooter,” she said with an exasperated sign. “Where do you live? I can have three of the girls drive with you. You each can take one.”

The last thing I wanted was to return home with a fleet of Taiwanese waitresses. I’d rather come home empty handed than with the food and three women in miniskirts. Especially if those women in miniskirts were dispatched at the behest of The Restaurateur.

“I can do it,” I reassured her. “I’ll put the bag of mozzarella sticks in the trunk and stack the pizza at my feet.”

“You can’t stack the pizzas,” I was told. “They are in bags, not boxes.”

What sort of place serves pizza to go in a bag? Pizza delivery might be the only reason the cardboard box industry still exists. No boxes? That was like finding out a home décor store sold paint but not paintbrushes.

“No, really, it’s OK,” I explained. “I live just 10 minutes away.”

I found myself bantering with her over food the way Amy had done months earlier over the mozzarella sticks. Worse, I was divulging information about where we lived to one of Amy’s nemeses. This had to stop.

“How do most people take the pizza home?” I asked, putting The Restaurateur on the spot.

“They don’t,” she said. “We don’t make pizzas for carry out. This was a special occasion.”

Maybe Amy was The Restaurateur’s nemesis, not the other way around. Amy was a skillful eater who myopically fretted over being a burden. She sympathetically had the upper hand, since she controlled when and where their showdowns reoccurred. Maybe we had it wrong all along.

After several exchanges and what ended up being a tense few moments, she agreed to let me transport the pizzas home on my scooter.

“Next time, bring a car,” she said, although it felt more like a warning than a suggestion.

I inexplicably agreed.

“Tell Amy I gave her the mozzarella sticks for free,” she said. “I’m the owner, I can do what I want.”

Well played, Restaurateur. Well played.

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