by Ashmita Malkani
Taipei. 2018. When I arrived, Radha Auntie poured two glasses of red wine. We sat, sipping, at the small dining room table. Beside us, the entryway to the kitchen, and the living room behind. Her small painting room opened with two sliding doors. A canvas perched on an easel, and another on the floor, both a swirl of colours. Two bedrooms.
“That one is yours,” she said, waving her hand to one. “When you go out,” she continued, “you’ll know you’re close to home when you see six palm trees.”
“I don’t remember that,” I said. My cousin, Mohan, had picked me up from the airport, took me halfway on the train, and put me in a cab.
“It’s dark. Next time, you will.” I smiled, and took a sip of my wine. She lit a menthol cigarette, and opened the laptop sitting on the table. “Do you like Bob Marley?”
“He’s a little before my time, Radha Auntie,” I said, laughing.
She tutted and clicked into YouTube. “He brought so many people together,” she said. “And still—look at this video, there are people playing his songs together around the world.”
Within a few days, we had slid into an easy routine. In the mornings I made coffee in her old percolator, flinging the ground beans into the compost she used for her rooftop vegetable garden. I left a steaming cup in the kitchen for her. I flung the windows open as far as they could go and read Giovanni’s Room, smoking cigarettes on her couch.
After coffee, we went to Red Room, the company she founded. What began as a once-every-so-often open mic night, she told me, had turned into an arts events company. It would be the place I ‘worked’ for the summer. Radha Auntie walked quickly, almost trotting, her speed belying the length of her legs. I ran to catch up with her, following her bobbing, short grey hair down the hill from her house, and into the narrow streets of Taipei.
I gathered quite quickly that there would not be much for me to do that summer. Without any understanding of Mandarin, it would be hard for me to help Radha Auntie. Despite my childhood in Hong Kong and Singapore, I had never learned much past the basic ni hao. The speaking rhythm and intonation, let alone writing in characters, intimidated me. I was already ashamed that I couldn’t speak any Hindi. Learning Mandarin first would have felt like a betrayal.
The last time I had seen Mohan and Radha Auntie was several years ago, at a wedding in India. On the train to her house from the airport, I listened intently as Mohan told me about the city.
“The food’s really good—and cheap—and people are pretty friendly and helpful. Don’t worry about not speaking Mandarin, you should be alright.”
“You speak Mandarin?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said, laughing openly at me. “I’ve lived here for a long time. Taiwanese people are always surprised when I speak. The look on their faces…” He paused, looking hard at me. Then he gave a short, derisive laugh, shaking his head. “Most of them think I’m just a tall hairy monkey.”
He did stand out. In India, nobody would look twice at his beard, his thick head of hair, his brown skin. A form of protest? My cousins in America grew beards sometimes, ignoring the pleas of our parents to not frighten the white people, to not get stopped at airports. A little bit of hair shouldn’t be frightening.
“I know the feeling,” I said. “Singapore is majority Chinese. I remember,” I paused, too, laughing at the memories, “Every time I went to get waxed it was always ‘wah, so hairy!’ Like… yeah, thanks for pointing that out.”
Mohan nodded. We were quiet for a while.
“I’m bisexual,” I said suddenly. Why did you say that? I thought. Shit. The words came out before I realised I was testing him—and hoping that, even if he was homophobic, he would at least tell me if I needed to closet my sexuality in Taipei.
“Cool,” he said, nodding. “Y’know, this is the only city in Asia that has a pride parade?”
Phew. Wait—“Wait. What?”
“Yeah, there’s a couple good bars we should go to while you’re here,” he said, then laughed at my vigorous nodding.
We were friends now.
Maybe this summer will be alright.
Red Room was literally one big, red room. Paintings hung on the walls like pears from trees, and on the left side an antique wedding bed; four posters and a canopy of wood, intricately carved, and a thin cushion to sit on. I could not identify its country of origin. To me, it seemed South and East Asian—Indian, Chinese, Balinese, Indonesian, Malaysian—all at once. Somehow, it did not feel out of place here. Several young people milled about, chatting before the morning meeting. Mohan waved me over.
“Yo, let’s go to the balcony.” He led me outside, pulling another girl along with us, and a pack of tobacco from his pocket. The air was thick from last night’s rain, settling on my skin like a comforter. I smiled at the grey-blue sky, the familiar architecture of the buildings across the way, and the drying racks on the windows, and the cigarette Mohan rolled and put in my hand.
Boston weather had blanched my skin. I was glad for the sun and humidity, glad that it would return me to the colour I was used to. There was a time that I hated my colour so desperately that I scrubbed my skin in the bathtub, wishing to reveal whiteness beneath, but only scratching it to bright, sore red. I wish that I could gather that child in my arms and replace her copy of Twilight with… well, anything, really.
“Yueh Ling—this is my cousin Ashmita,” he said.
Yueh Ling’s pants billowed out from her hips and tapered at her ankles, a loose white t-shirt tucked into them. Her short black hair brushed the base of her neck in a ponytail.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi,” I said, my stomach lurching. We smiled shyly at each other.
Mohan said something to her in Mandarin and she laughed, pushing him playfully.
“What did you say?” I asked Mohan. Before he could reply, Radha Auntie’s voice came through the balcony doors.
We gathered around two tables, and they began their regular staff meeting. I tried not to stare at Yueh Ling; to focus my attention on Radha Auntie as she led the team through the week’s game plan, but I wasn’t able to understand the meeting and my eyes drifted to her again and again, like a lilting compass. I listened intently as she spoke, and gathered that she was a photographer and graphic designer, and the head of social media.
Mohan, switching effortlessly between languages, introduced me to his friends at Red Room, and we ate together each day. I stuffed myself with braised pork rice, scallion and radish pancakes, beef noodle soup, dumplings on dumplings, stir fried soba and udon. After work, at the bustling night market, I gingerly bit into skewers of grilled tofu and oyster mushrooms. Yueh Ling laughed at my delighted surprise, and as I devoured the rest in a few bites.
She hovered always at the edge of my sight in billowing pants and white t-shirt, sometimes with a bandana tied around her head, always her hair in a ponytail or in a bun. She frowned when we spoke, searching for the right words in English. I caught her looking at me more than once. Our eyes met and quickly jumped away.
“If you like her, you have to say her name right, dude,” Mohan said one day at lunch. Yueh Ling was out that day, and I had been eating quietly, almost thankful that my awareness was allowed a respite from her presence.
“Show me,” I pleaded, putting down my chopsticks.
“It’s y-eh-u Ling. Not you Ling. Try it,” he said, waving his hand upwards like an encouraging music conductor.
I hollowed the back of my mouth, trying to mimic the way his voice shifted through the first syllable of her name, the way he stretched it into two without breaking it. He nodded, almost there, and I said it again and again.
“Stop! There. That’s the one,” he said.
A few days later, he found me.
“You’re going to her place tonight,” he said. His long black hair was drawn into a bun, and his eyes twinkled above his beard.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“I told mum that you’re spending the night at my place, but you’re going to go to hers.”
“Mohan, what have you done,” I groaned.
“Just shut up and say thank you.”
“… Thank you.”
Her apartment was small, and covered in plants. There was a pot on the stove, overflowing with tea leaves, and a narrow corridor with a door at the end.
“Let’s go to the roof,” she said, leading me down the hall, through the doors, and up a narrow set of stairs.
Our conversation was slow, and stilted. She searched for English, and I searched for synonyms for words she didn’t understand. We talked about our coming out stories, so similar and so different. She asked me about my life in Boston. I asked about her life here. We both wanted to travel the world. We stood by the railing, looking out at Taipei glitter, the sloping edges of mountains still discernible in the dark, in the distance, and the ever-present beacon of Taipei 101 extending into the sky.
We had fallen into a comfortable silence when she said, “Thank you—”
“For what?” I interrupted. At least let her finish a sentence, I berated myself. She’s speaking in English for you.
“For waiting for me to find the… the right words.”
She’s thanking me?
“It’s my pleasure,” I said. It was. “Thank you for speaking English with me. I’m sorry I can’t speak Mandarin.”
“I know,” she said, grinning. “You say my name well, though.”
I cupped her face in my hands and brought her lips to mine.
On the other side of the rooftop was a tent. We laid on top of a sleeping bag; the door of the tent unzipped; string lights a soft glow through the cloth roof.
Yueh Ling was sleeping soundly next to me, the light blanket we shared tossed to the side. But with great humidity comes many mosquitoes. I twisted, squirmed, scratched. I tried, desperately, to find sleep. Hours passed. I couldn’t stand it anymore. I put my hand on her shoulder.
“Yueh Ling. Yueh Ling,” her name felt like a coin in my mouth. “Please, wake up.” She grunted and turned over, eyes blinking open, annoyed. “I can’t sleep. The mosquitoes are biting me, a lot. I’m too itchy.”
She pshhhd, shaking her head, but yawned and said, “Okay, let’s go downstairs.”
We trudged through the narrow corridor, in the dark, to her room. I sat down on her bed, a thin mattress on the floor, and immediately began scratching again. The light switch flipped on and she stood by it, still yawning. But we could see now.
We stared in horror at my ravaged body. My legs were red from bug bites and the raking of my nails. My arms and back twitched, and the places I couldn’t reach were screaming to be itched. She gasped. I tried to stay calm. Somehow, in the dark, it hadn’t seemed as bad.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m so sorry.” She hurried to a cabinet and pulled out some ointment. She sat next to me and daubed it over each bite, saying again and again, “I’m sorry.”
“What are you sorry for? It’s not your fault,” I said. When she shook her head, I laughed weakly and pushed my shoulder against hers, hoping she would smile.
“I didn’t know,” she said, still shaking her head. Her eyes were wide as she worked, her fingers so light I could barely feel them moving.
“How could you have known?” I was actually laughing now. How she blamed herself felt too familiar—I would do the same thing. I took my shirt off, and turned my back to her. “God, that feels good,” I moaned as she covered the bites I couldn’t reach. I turned my head over my shoulder, and she gave me a small smile.
By the time she was satisfied, and had covered my whole body in ointment, I could barely keep my eyes open.
With the lights still on, I brought her mouth to mine. I hadn’t realised how thin she was, as she usually wore flowing clothes. I raised a hand to my stomach, self conscious.
What hasn’t she realised about me? I wondered.
She traced the faded tattoo on my ribs, and ran her hands up and down my bug bites.
I was incredibly itchy the first time we had sex.
A few days later, Yueh Ling told me about a music festival in Hualien that she went to every year, called Ocean Home. She wanted me to come.
“You’ll have a great time, man. They build everything themselves—all the stages, everything, from wood they find around the beach, and everybody cooks and eats together. You should go, get to see another part of Taiwan,” Mohan said. “Mum will say yes if you ask her.”
My flight back to the States left before the actual festival, but she went to the coast early to help with the build. Many festival-goers would set up their tents in an abandoned building by the beach.
“Will we stay in a tent?” I asked Yueh Ling.
She poked my stomach. “Not with your sweet blood,” she said, grinning. I swatted her hand away and stuck my tongue out at her. Gone were the shy smiles, the stolen glances. We teased each other relentlessly, and anything lost in translation was just that—lost and immaterial.
Taipei is one of the only places in Asia where it’s almost safe to come out, to pursue a same-sex relationship, and to dress in the way one wishes. In May of 2019, it became the first place in Asia to legalize gay marriage. I hadn’t known that there was a country like this on the continent. A couple of nights before we left for Hualien, Yueh Ling took me to a gay jazz club named Sappho.
“Sappho? For real?”
She looked at me in confusion.
“Like… Sappho? The OG lesbian?” I could see I wasn’t getting anywhere. “She was this, like… Greek poet, from the island of Lesbos? Like—”
“Lesbian,” she finished. We beamed at each other and turned back to the small stage, where a band was playing free jazz. We listened for a long while.
I cleared it with Radha Auntie—I would go for three nights, return to Taipei, and then hop on a plane back to the U.S.
We took the high speed train, and arrived in Hualien in less than three hours. Yueh Ling rented a motorcycle as I took in the coastal county. She handed me a helmet, and settled me behind her. We rode for another hour to the small house where we would be staying, my arms circling the weight of her backpack and around her waist. We arrived at the house. The smell of the ocean was everywhere.
The walls of the bedroom were made of glass. Windows which overlooked a hill of endless greenery. From the furthest corner, a gap in the trees gave way to blue, blue water. The ocean.
Yueh Ling took pictures on an old film camera (because of course she did), and snapped pictures of me whenever I wasn’t looking.
“I prefer… How do you say it?”
“Yes, exactly. Candid photos,” she said, holding up her camera again. “Don’t look at me!”
“Alright, alright,” I said, laughing, “I’ll just be over here, reading my book…” I said, picking up Giovanni’s Room. I sat on the couch and pretended to read.
The shutter went off with a loud click-click and then, from the corner of my eye, I watched her walk to stand by the front door.
“Let’s go meet everyone,” she said.
“I’m nervous, Yueh Ling,” I said, putting down my book.
“Don’t worry, you’re with me,” she said. She handed me the mosquito repellent.
We rode to the gathering spot, where early-comers had already started setting up camp and cooking lunch. I ate cabbage, mushrooms, and tofu as she spoke to her friends, and gazed at the glittering beach. After a few minutes, she turned to me.
“Hey, do you want to go to a waterfall?”
“Umm hell yes!”
“I’ve been to one here before, but I don’t remember where it is… you okay if we try to find it? Might take a while,” she said. I grabbed my motorcycle helmet.
She said goodbye to her friends, and we took off.
The wind surged around us, wet and salty. Green was on all sides. Mountains, covered in dense trees, rose and fell; deep valleys of grass and ferns flashed by; trees canopied sections of the dirt road. Instead of a waterfall, we found a river. She parked a little bit off the road, and we clambered down grass and rocks to clear water. Small fish flitted through glinting sunlight, there and then gone. A mile or so away, a few fishermen stood ankle-deep with shallow nets.
Yueh Ling stripped everything but her sandals, jumped into the water, and floated, starfished, on her back.
“You coming?” She called.
“Can’t get my new tattoo wet,” I called back sadly.
The sun was scalding, and I watched jealously as she immersed her whole body in the cool river water. I giggled to myself, at the image of her completely naked except for her strappy Reebok sandals, peeking out of the water like crocodile eyes. I dipped my toes in, and lay back on a hot rock. For the hours by the river, I didn’t get bitten. I knew that by the time we got home, my body would be a few shades darker.
I trailed my fingers in a small hollow. The water swirling inside was warm.
Singapore is rainforest and fresh concrete, and Boston is brick, and snow, and American newness. The stones I was sitting on in Hualien, I felt, had been there forever. The sun poured into them like sand into an hourglass. I sat up and watched the river rise and ebb, colouring the lower halves of the rocks a deep grey, gently eroding them.
How much of this will be the same, I thought, two hundred years from now? For a moment, I wished desperately for nothing to change. I lay back again, and let the hot stone burn my skin for a few seconds, knowing that it would subside to warmth. And for a while, the sun poured into me too.
I woke to Yueh Ling dripping cool water onto my forehead.
“In Taiwan? Always.” I sat up. Droplets of water clung to her face. She had put her underwear on, and reclined on a rock next to me for a moment.
“Two minutes. The sun will dry me,” she said. I nodded, then realised she couldn’t see me.
“Sounds good,” I said, laying on my stomach. I rested my chin on my hands and turned my head to sneak a look at her. She had her eyes closed, but was running one hand through her hair to spread it out to dry. If Renoir had painted skinny Taiwanese lesbians, she would be a painting.
It was too beautiful to be real, so I began to retrace my steps.
An aeroplane; Red Room; the high speed train. These things made sense. But how had we come to be here, together?
Would you have been attracted to her if we had both grown up in Taiwan, or if you spoke Mandarin? The thought struck me like a bell.
I rolled back over. Am I exoticising her?
I released a long breath. Does it matter? You’re here. You enjoy each other’s company. Stop overthinking this.
I had thought, when we first met, how cool it was to start something with someone who didn’t look like me, or speak the same language as me. How open-minded I was. How unbiased I was. I had been proud.
Cool? You asshole, I thought.
At college, I was told that my accent and ‘foreign’ features made people either want to run away, or they were ‘drawn’ to me.
Would she have been attracted to you? Does it matter?
Is it only exoticism when there is a hollowness, a desire to take without giving anything in return?
Yueh Ling held a hand up to block the sun, squinting for a moment, then drew herself up to sit.
I nodded, stood, and took both of her hands, pulling her to her sandaled feet.
On the motorcycle, I held on to her loosely, using my legs to grip the seat. We balanced easily, evenly, on the rumbling leather. I leaned back a little and let the wind rush between our bodies.
We arrived at a small restaurant in the middle of town. Radha Auntie had told me, when I first arrived in Taipei, “If there’s a line out front or every table is full, that means it’s good. Get in line.”
This had both. There were no walls, but there was a ceiling, held up by four beams at the corners. Tables were packed in so tight, I couldn’t tell where one group of people ended and the other began. We stood patiently in line, trading names of our favourite restaurants.
“If you ever go to Singapore you should call me,” I said. “I’ll tell you all the best places to eat.”
“Okay!” she said, looking excited. “I will.”
We got a two-seater table, the top grazing my knees, and Yueh Ling ordered for us immediately. I leaned back in my chair, taking in all of the people that fit inside this small restaurant. It reminded me of coffee shops in Italy—Italians stuffed into tiny rooms, downing espressos in one sip and jetting off, only to be replaced by another person with a tiny cup.
“These are the best dumplings in all of Taiwan,” she said. They were not the machine-made dumplings I was used to, all perfectly the same. These had paper-thin skin, and varied in size and shape. Steam rose from the bamboo basket they sat in, dissipating quickly in the heat. They looked amazing. Yueh Ling, without hesitation, shoved one in her mouth and then, just as quickly, spat it out. She covered her mouth with one hand, staring in horror at the half-chewed dumpling, quivering between chopsticks in the other.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I forgot! I’m vegetarian!”
A laugh escaped me before I clapped my hands over my mouth. She looked at me, scandalised and hurt for a moment. I dropped my hands, struggling to contain another giggle. She started to smile too. And then it wasn’t long before she dropped the bedraggled dumpling back in the basket to clutch her belly as we both collapsed into laughter.
She was right. It was the best dumpling I’ve ever had.
Three days passed in the flick of a fin.
She dropped me off at the train station. I gave her some money for the house and the motorcycle rental. She tried to refuse at first. I slid it into her hand, allowing myself to linger. I wanted to say something beautiful, or tragic.
“Well, I guess this is goodbye,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “Goodbye, Ash. I’ll never forget you.”
“I’ll never forget you either,” I said. I looked hard at her, trying to memorise her face. “Send me those pictures when you get them developed, okay?”
She stayed to watch me go through the turnstiles and board the train, and then turned and walked back to the motorcycle. I felt the numbness of shock. I saw her put my helmet away beneath the seat. The train began to pull away. I faced forward, and put my headphones in. Something good had happened, I was sure of it.
Ashmita Malkani‘s first publication was on the street near Old Town Hall in Salem, Massachusetts. As a winner of Mass Poetry Festival’s “Migration” Poetry Contest, her work was printed on the sidewalk for an eight week period in the summer of 2017. Her first online publication was her poem, “mother(land)”, in Volume 14 of Midway Journal. She holds a BFA in Stage & Production Management from Emerson College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Salve Regina University. She is a queer South Asian woman striving to figure out where she’s from and where she’s going.
If you would like to submit original art for the print issue and/or feature online for this essay, check out our art contest at bit.ly/asianvoicesart, running May 1st-July 1st, 2022.