Did the one-armed man do it?

By • Aug 13th, 2010 • Category: Diary


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

A one-armed man lived in my first apartment building in Asia.

There also was a three-legged black Labrador and a Chihuahua that was missing an eye. The country felt like The Island of Misfit Body Parts. Rummage long enough through the innumerable night markets, and you might find The Bumble’s tooth for sale at a bargain rate alongside Rayeban brand sunglasses and Nikee gym shoes.

It didn’t take long for Amy to nickname the Chihuahua “Arrrthur” because of its unfortunate resemblance to a pirate. I called the Lab “Teepee” and then “TP” as a compromise after several disgusted looks dissuaded me from referring to him as “Tripod,” which I settled on after first trying to name him “Legs-3PO.”

Displaced Catholic guilt left me feeling as though their disabilities somehow were my fault. To feel better, I’d envision these two as high-ranking officials of rival gangs in a canine version of “West Side Story.” TP headed up the Sharks – an animal without arms – in epic dance fights against Arrrthur’s Jets, a vehicle with a cycloptic front window.

I had failed many times back home to teach my mother’s golden retriever, Sandy, fundamental pooch etiquette, such as, “Vomiting, although natural, should be done outside and not each time you sneak into the basement.” Sandy’s failure to grasp those basic concepts after 13 years left me with little hope that the dogs in Taiwan understood how they ended up with their respective disabilities. If an American canine couldn’t comprehend, “Please do not fart on my clean shirts,” her Asian relatives probably didn’t spend much time pondering fate and misfortune.

As a result, I felt worse for the animals than I did for our one-armed neighbor. The dogs were victims. Crippled. Gimps in need of compassion. The man was human, and with a little perseverance – and a time machine – he could be a drummer in an ’80s hair-metal band. Even if a time machine would present quite the conundrum: Travel back to assume the life of a successful, one-armed rock star or choose an otherwise unimpressive future with all limbs intact.

As far as I could tell, though, our building didn’t come equipped for time travel, despite what its antiquated amenities would lead a person to believe. It did, however, double as a sanctuary for needy animals, and the one-armed man was their King Moonracer. I assume that residing over a limping, cross-eyed horde requires a good heart and an iron fist. He had the correct number of both.

Yet, the most impressive thing about him wasn’t the supposed leadership skills, but rather that he still drove a scooter.

In fairness, I don’t know for a fact that was the most amazing thing about him since we never actually had a conversation. He might have been a bullfighter or the long-lost heir to the throne in a country of which I’ve never heard. Maybe he conducted groundbreaking research on the nutritional value of squid-ink milkshakes or could juggle flaming, chainsaw-bowling pins while eating swords on a unicycle. But defying certain regulations to motor through hectic Asian traffic is no small feat.

Although driving laws don’t prevent someone with only one arm from cruising Taiwan’s streets, there are laws of engineering that do. Scooters have a number of safety features designed to halt people from doing insane things, such as steering with one hand.

Starting the vehicle is a two-palmed job. The left hand break needs to be engaged when the ignition is flipped on the right handlebar. It’s possible to use a knee or nose to press the electric starter button, but that requires twisting like a pretzel and a sense of balance inherent only to figure skaters. To ensure the necessity of both hands, more finicky scooters require simultaneously revving the engine by pulling back on the accelerator. It’s no coincidence that the throttle is on the right handlebar, since the rear-brake lever is on the left. Unless someone feels like cartwheeling head-over-heels through each intersection, it makes sense that one hand makes you go, and the other makes you stop.

In a right-handed world with leftist sympathies, scooters thrive as an oasis for ambidexterity. But somehow, my neighbor figured out how to drive with only one arm. Not just anywhere, either. In Asia. In Taiwan. On streets that feel like video games alongside drivers who act as though they walked straight out of one. traffic-02

Cars zig and zag in any direction without regard for personal well-being. Traffic signals are suggestions. Street signs are mere decorations. Medians are inconveniences, and driver’s licenses are afterthoughts. It wouldn’t be unlikely for a bus to speed, … the wrong way, … on the sidewalk, to cash in a few extra fares. Pets are as popular passengers as infants, and probably better behaved. There are people who tow mattresses and those who straddle potted plants. Cargo is stacked at their feet, rested on their seat, and teetered on their shoulders. Families sit belly-to-back, wedged together like a jigsaw puzzle. I thought it was dangerous when I saw four people riding on one scooter. I was convinced it was lunacy after witnessing a family of five balance on a single motorcycle.

These streets are home to motorists who’d rather rectify collisions with quick, out-of-pocket settlements than involve the police and who don’t bother to stop at all after minor fender-benders. Like the time I was riding on the back of my boss’ scooter en route to a vacant parking lot to practice driving before buying one of my own. Instead of yielding at a stop sign, we bypassed a parked car to squeak through an opening on the curb. The gap was so tight that my knee clipped the license plate of a parked scooter, snapping it off and leaving it spinning on the ground like a top as we whizzed away. “Meh, it happens,” she said shrugging, and we didn’t look back.

Another time while trailing a car down a one-way alley, the driver in front of me slammed on the vehicle’s brakes and threw the gearshift into reverse. I couldn’t backpedal fast enough. Without even a casual glance in her rearview mirror, she zoomed backward, only stopping after her bumper smashed into the front of my scooter. She winked. Smiled. Waved goodbye and drove off, never to be heard from again.

The hazardous driving in Asia is the basis for a popular analogy that compares Eastern and Western thinking. The scenario is meant to highlight importance placed on logic, law and relationships.

The fictional scenario goes like this:

Driving along a deserted road in the middle of the night, a car heads toward a four-way intersection. The light is red, but it’s the only vehicle in sight. What does the driver do?

The belief is that a motorist from a Western country would value the law most and wait until the light turned green. Secondary emphasis would be placed on the logic of waiting there alone, with distant attention paid to how running the light might affect interpersonal relationships. (1) Law. (2) Logic. (3) Relationships.

It’s a direct contrast to stereotypes about Eastern personalities. The impression of Taiwanese drivers is that utmost care would be given to how blowing through the stop could ruin a relationship. Did a family friend install the light? Could an animal run out in front of me? Are there any pedestrians who’d think less of me if I don’t stop? But logic soon would take over, and the pointlessness of waiting in the middle of the night at a vacant crossroad would be too much to ignore. The law, lastly, is for everyone else. (1) Relationships. (2) Logic. (3) Law.

Because so much gravity is placed on the others’ impressions, the seemingly lawless streets of Taiwan have some organization to the chaos. No matter how hastily someone travels, there’s an old lady in a pink Hello Kitty helmet going faster. On the other hand, slower motorists need not worry, since there always is a pot-bellied man begging to be passed by. The insanity is self-contained, and flouting the law rarely means infringing on other drivers.

This doesn’t mean navigating traffic without proper appendages would be easy. It’s why I marveled so suspiciously at my one-armed neighbor. Sure, he often carried a scooter helmet through our lobby, but I never saw him physically take to the streets. I had a hard time accepting that I routinely missed his arrival, given the number of times we passed in the hallways. We kept the same schedules and ate at the same places. I even knew which mailbox was his. What I didn’t know was how he managed to control a vehicle that requires twice as many hands. Maybe he was an electrolyte-chugging thrill-seeker, which might explain how he lost his arm in the first place. Or, maybe – just maybe – he was huge liar, and toting around a helmet was a ruse.

There are a number of things in Taiwan that don’t make sense. Some facets of the country are hard to believe, while others are downright illogical and demand leaps of faith that I’m not ready to make.

The most pungent falsity in Taiwan is the consumption of stinky tofu. It’s a food served by roadside vendors and has a reputation for being the snack of choice for island residents. Not seasoned chicken nor sweet-potato fries, not even the abundance of exotic fresh fruits sold at stands around every corner. Rumor has it that locals salivate most thinking about sinking their teeth into this smelly dish. tofu-02

Skewered squares of fried tofu are slathered in brine made from milk, meat, vegetables and herbs, which has fermented for up to several months. It smells like rotten garbage, … covered in wooly mammoth hair, … lit on fire, … doused in patchouli oil, … and then left to bake under the sun.

The smell is so strong that I’ve run red lights to avoid stopping near a stand, law and relationships be damned. For this reason, many of the sellers wear surgical masks to filter the stench. Sometimes, an innocent trip in the countryside can turn into a violent sniper attack when the odor crops up out of nowhere and weasels its way inside a driver’s helmet.

The most confusing thing about stinky tofu is that I’ve never seen the Taiwanese eat it. People of all ages – from coworkers to pre-elementary students – have told me that it tastes delicious despite the god-awful aroma. I just don’t have visual evidence to believe the claims, and I certainly don’t have any firsthand knowledge. The acclaim for this dish is so universal that none of my Taiwanese friends will admit disliking it or even recall someone who does. They vehemently deny suggestions that stinky tofu might be the culinary equivalent to the emperor’s new clothes – almost fearfully – that it’s as though declaring the dish as anything but exquisite is grounds for deportation.

There are plenty of Americans, like me, who don’t care for apple pie. My German-born father has no strong feelings toward chocolate cake, and my Belgian relatives never have asked me to join them for waffles. So the idea that an entire nationality honestly subscribes to the same feelings on a food, well, … stinks.

The over-the-top defensive feels like a nationwide cover-up to dupe foreigners. “Let’s tell them that we all love stinky tofu, that eating stinky tofu is the ‘real’ Taiwan experience. This ought to be great. Get the video cameras ready. The Internet isn’t big enough to hold all of the footage that’s going to come from this.”

So foreigners fresh off the tarmac flock to night markets to test their wills against stinky tofu stands, none the wiser of the elaborate inside joke lurking behind their order. They gag. They hold their noses. They snap photos before rushing home to shower off the day.

But the pictures that remain long after the odor has been washed away perpetuate yet another island conspiracy.

Look at most any picture of visiting foreigners, and we’ve likely held up a peace sign or framed our face with an “L” made with a thumb and an index finger.

We’re told almost upon arrival that they’re the common poses for Taiwanese teens, and we gleefully mock the stances. Group photos at company retreats feature packs of sarcastic expatriates donning these hand signals and laughing at the expense of youngsters who genuinely flash them without regard for how silly it looks. No situation is too big or too small, and it always draws an “I can’t believe people really do this” chuckle. At the National Palace Museum? Must be time to jokingly show off the required signs. At dinner with friends? Catch your reflection at the library and think your outfit looks cute? Have relatives vacationing from back home? Flash a peace sign; frame your face.

But a funny thing happens on the way to photo albums<!–[if !supportAnnotations]–>. These poses become instinctive. Pretty soon, what once was calculated mockery is second nature. And while we still grin at our dead-horse ridicule, there are airports full of new tourists using us as the butt of their jokes. It’s a never-ending cycle of derision for years to come, disseminated by groups of high-schoolers who strategically snap self-portraits in plain view of gawking expats. These teens are conniving beyond their years, and they momentarily sacrifice vanity for the cause of reinforcing foreigners’ beliefs that everyone acts this way in photos. Taiwan has an economy built on international trade. Judging from photos, the island’s biggest export might be Richard Nixon impersonators.

We’re left looking bèn, the Chinese word for “stupid.” Not to be confused with běn , the word to indicate a number of books, or bēn which means to elope quickly.

Mandarin Chinese is full of unfortunate tonal similarities, such as mài (to sell) and mǎi (to buy), and raising the inflection can change words’ entire meanings. Imagine if “tomato” were different than “tomAto.” Claiming that, “You say ‘potato’ and I say ‘potAto,’ ” wouldn’t just be an obnoxious adage. In Chinese, these pronunciations do alter definitions and leave novice speakers grasping for ways to communicate.

There’s a big difference between Zuǒ tiānwǒmen chéng tā de mǎ (Yesterday, we rode his horse.) and Zuǒ tiān wǒmen chéng tā de mā (Yesterday, we rode his mother.). Making friends is tricky when hobbies include that ài kàn niào (I love to look at urine.) instead of that Wǒ ài kàn niǎo (I love to watch birds.).

Is the importance of tones a convenient way for native speakers to play dumb? For a language with more than 1 billion speakers in a culture with some of the brightest technological minds, it’s strange that deciphering context clues is so difficult. It’s as though deductive reasoning ceases to exist in casual conversation. It’s easy to blame the wrong tone and serve stale coffee when instead of ordering bù tián kāfēi (not sweet coffee) someone asks for bù tiān kāfēi (not today coffee).

My approach to the language became to say everything similarly and point in the direction my voice should travel. Sure, I looked like an orchestra conductor – tickling the air while my finger waved frantically – but it let me gauge whether people understood meanings despite incorrect tones. Although there’s little difference between Miànbāo zài nàlǐ (The bread is located there.) and Miànbāo zài nǎlǐ (The bread is located where?), there certainly is between Wǒ gěi nǐ yī kuài (I give you $1.) and Wǒ gěi nǐ yì kuài (I give you $1 million.).

Speculations can run ramped as to what native speakers dǒng, or “understand.” Not dòng (to freeze) or dōng (rainbow).

Hard-to-accept truths like stinky tofu, photo posturing and language tones heightened my belief that my one-armed neighbor’s scooter helmet was fashionable, not functional. I just didn’t have proof.

That was until one night in mid-July when we shared an elevator to our lobby. He stood innocently, unaware that I was onto his elaborate hoax. He might have had the doorman fooled, but not me. Years working in newsrooms and dealing with politicians, reporters and publicists had trained my eye for BS. It was time that someone put a stop to his masquerading.

Why stalk the one-armed man as though he were getting away with killing my wife? What good could come from devoting a Tuesday night to administering civilian justice like the ironic long arm of the law? These are details best left unexplored. When said aloud, they sound like a malicious attempt to call the bluff of an unsuspecting stranger and not a valiant quest for truth.

I often struggled for balance driving a scooter against the wind and rain using two arms, and I had to know for certain how he could motor around the city with one. This was my chance to eliminate any doubts. traffic-01

Like on most days, I was armed with enough surveillance equipment to hijack a small plane. I had my digital camera, a laptop computer with built-in photo and video components and a cell phone equipped with a camera, video portal and voice recorder. In my pocket, check. Forget merely putting my mind at ease; I could stockpile multiangle footage and splice together a one-armed highlight reel. If my neighbor had a future as Ringling Bros. biggest-ever circus celebrity, he’d need me to first create a viral video sensation. The future looked bright with the right few frames of evidence. He’d make the rounds on late-night TV talk shows. Befriending the hosts, rubbing elbows with movie stars, and sometimes – not every time, just on special occasions when the interview’s vibe was particularly relaxed – calling me down from the audience to laughingly retell how we met.

Alan McGee, Lou Pearlman and William Wesley all earned millions by making other people famous, and the Internet needed a power broker of this sort to wield that influence. Before his death, hopeful musicians would slip legendary disc jockey John Peel demo tapes by the hundreds, waiting with bated breath for a few-word endorsement to launch their careers. I could be this person for the directionless masses who light things on fire, take soccer balls to the face, fall off trampolines and treadmills, paint with food, tearfully overreact to Hollywood gossip, dance in their living rooms, or sing into their computers. This is the reason the Internet exists, and it wouldn’t be long until kids from every corner of the globe would flood my mailbox with home movies.

My first act before assuming my position as the Web’s most powerful talent agent would be to verify my neighbor’s helmet as necessity. I needed him to saddle up, find his grip, and hit the road. Unfortunately, I couldn’t simply unpack my cameras and set up a perimeter, although I briefly considered it.

I could, however, call on my biggest asset in Taiwan: I was foreign. It meant I was weird.

I’d be compassionately ignored like the strange relative at a family reunion who wears a tinfoil hat, calls everyone “guy,” and spouts conspiracy theories. Oh, that’s just Uncle Derek. Don’t mind him. He’s harmless, but don’t let him corner you when it’s time to eat. My nationality was a free pass for ignorance. By default, people assumed I didn’t know any better. The Taiwanese are resoundingly friendly. No matter how accidentally absurd my behavior was, they saw it as adorable, like children dressed up in their parents’ clothes pretending to be grown up. Someday I’d understand, and whatever I did in the meantime was quaint.

In turn, I’d be left alone.

It’s what I counted on when I took a seat on the stoop outside our apartment building. I was early to meet Amy when she got off work, and I had time to find out how – if – my neighbor drove.

To my left, a girl chatted on her cell phone, probably about stickers and shiny things, although her exaggerated tones meant I only recognized the Chinese words for “read,” “money” and “iced.” Another woman to my right posed for a photo with her dog. She flashed a peace sign, and then let her pup sniff around the adjacent park while she, too, made a call.

I had more pressing matters than listening in, but followed their leads by putting my cell phone firmly against my ear. Then, like many times before, I launched into an in-depth conversation, … loudly, … in English, … with myself. Usually when I conversed alone, I didn’t harbor delusions that anybody was on the other end. I was happy to recite lyric passages solo in my car. I’d been known to unleash aggressive rants in private instead of within earshot of my bosses. However, this time, I pretended that someone was talking back. Today was different. I wanted people to listen in. Even if they couldn’t understand what was said, they needed to believe a voice was on the other end of the line. My sentences had to follow a logical narrative. My pauses had to be well-timed and convincingly spaced. Body language was key.

It was a good thing I had taken one semester of drama during my senior year of high school. Otherwise, this would have been difficult. I might have cracked under the pressure. Without the experience of once reciting – flawlessly – a 30-second monologue from “Ghostbusters,” this performance could have been jilted. But my extensive theater background meant I could play off my audience’s suspension of disbelief. No one in their right mind would accuse an adult of such an intricate con job, one that involved props just to trick his unsuspecting neighbors. Onlookers had no reason to be suspicious, and I used this naivety to my advantage.

“Hey, man, what’s up?” I said into the phone, looking around to see whether anyone perked up with attention. I could recognize whether a person spoke English just by the way he or she stood near me. Living in a country where I barely could speak meant I developed a heightened feel for other people’s awareness. I’d spot them listening in on conversations while shopping; I’d notice people smiling while they pretended to mind their own business. The inhibition of one sense causes the others to overcompensate, like Daredevil developing radar senses after losing his sight.

My imaginary listener got a gender straight away, although I thought it absurd to give him a name. Talking to another male meant I could become disinterested if distracted by any one-armed scooter wrangling that might take place. Had I supposedly been speaking to Amy, I’d have had an obligation to stay engaged in the conversation. Any feigned interest would leave me sounding like an inconsiderate boyfriend. I didn’t need people judging me; I needed them to ignore me, and there are few things more easily tuned out than a conversation between two men.

Since he allegedly had called me, it explained how I ended up on the phone in such an imperfect setting. If I wanted privacy, I would have called from my apartment. But I couldn’t help being caught off guard by an incoming call. It also meant the weight of the conversation was on his end. My role was merely reactionary.

“Not yet. Soon, though,” I supposedly replied.

I had locked myself in to a realistic yet vague timeframe for departure, which meant my neighbor had better get to scootering quickly. If this were a stakeout in an Ian Flemming novel, we’d be at an elegant party. I’d be in a tuxedo, sipping a martini and working sly one-liners into casual conversation. The man would slip out the back door, peel back his face to reveal his true identity, then untuck a second limb that had been hidden inside his shirt all along. It was a far cry from huddling on a staircase, talking to nobody, and watching a stranger linger alongside his vehicle. I was no James Bond, and the one-armed man was no Auric Goldfinger. Heck, he wasn’t even Odd-Job.

“Really? What do you mean?”

Still no reaction from the women within earshot. They could hear me, but they weren’t listening. Even if their English was as poor as my Chinese, I’d have to maintain a realistic dialogue. The conversation now was on the other end of the line. I had asked a question with vocabulary simple enough for beginning speakers to understand. It gave me time to observe.

The one-armed man stood quietly amid the rows of vehicles. His helmet dangled from his right hand as he gazed longingly up and down our street. Was he waiting for a ride? It would be an anticlimactic resolution, but an acceptable one nonetheless. That would explain why he often had a helmet but never a scooter. The mounting suspense was almost overwhelming. This would be it. He couldn’t stand there all night. Even at dusk, the Taiwan sun beats down through the suffocating humidity, and there was no shade in sight.

“Right. I guess.”

Open-ended but not in full agreement. That should keep the person on the other end of the phone spewing his diatribe until I was convinced of his imaginary point. Meanwhile, I had more important matters to tend to than the fictional disagreement in my head. Maybe it’s my contrarian’s nature, but scripting a back-and-forth phone call between parties who aren’t seeing eye-to-eye came instinctively.

The way I saw it, two options remained for the one-armed man. Get on a scooter, and in turn, start down the road to Internet stardom by commencing our guru/phenom working relationship. Or don’t, and allow me to salvage a few moments of poise in a world so corrupt that a person could manipulate societal sympathy by pretending to drive.

At any minute, my mind would be at ease.

“Cool. I’ll be there.” …

Any minute.

“Is that so?” I said into the phone.

It wouldn’t be long.

“I’m heading over to get Amy right now.” …

All he had to do was act. What was he waiting for?

Then came a jolt I wasn’t expecting. “FINISHED EARLY! CAN LEAVE WHENEVER YOU GET HERE. –AMY,” read a text message that vibrated against my ear and sent my spirits plummeting. Startled and discouraged, I put my helmet on and walked passed the one-armed man as he took a seat on his scooter. I glared through the visor in a last-ditch effort to spot his next move. He smiled. I nodded. We crossed paths as we had so many times before, yet this time eying the other like respectful adversaries anticipating another showdown.

“Alright, hope to see you later.”

I never got another chance to learn the truth behind his ride. Part of me hopes he drove away. It means he’s out there somewhere, motoring around the streets of Taiwan like an elusive, limb-challenged white whale. There are times when I think I spot a one-armed driver amid oncoming traffic, but getting a solid look always is difficult.

I did try to sneak a final peak in my mirror as I sped off down our bloc that night. I think I caught a glimpse of his headlights, but it’s probably just my imagination. I have a hard time blindly accepting that any rational person would drive a scooter without both arms.

Besides, I was distracted.

“C U soon,” I typed back, texting with one hand – driving with the other.

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