The Dog of Destiny

The Dog of Destiny, amongst the rice paddies.
The Dog of Destiny (named by our niece)

The Dog of Destiny was found wandering the streets of Georgia. She was taken to a “kill-shelter” with a less-than-inspired approach to animal welfare. She and her unborn pups were slated for destruction (what passes for humane treatment in the Redneck Belt). Thankfully, a volunteer from an animal rescue found her in time.

I imagine the Dog of Destiny in that moment, panting behind chain-link, white-dappled paws on cold concrete. Her tail wagging in spite of it all. Pregnant belly swaying. Those gentle, brown eyes pleading in their unassuming way. Can I come with you?

She was placed in a foster home and nurtured back to health. She was house-broken and socialized. She was given love and affection, perhaps for the very first time in her life. Then she was driven by a volunteer to an animal rescue in New Jersey, where she gave birth to eight healthy puppies.

Her puppies found homes one by one. The Dog of Destiny patiently waited her turn.

Dahlia and I wanted another dog. It took three years until we were ready. Three years for the pain of loss to fade. Our beloved boxer Gracie had been stricken with a mysterious illness while we were living in Egypt. We tried to save her, but in the end we had to let her go. I was heart-broken, still am. That’s pretty much all I want to say about it.

I saw a photo of The Dog of Destiny on an animal rescue website. I let them know we were interested in adopting her.

We filled out an application. We were interviewed. We provided personal references. They actually called and asked about us. It was quite the process.

Then I was driving down to meet her. I knew as soon as I met The Dog of Destiny that I would be bringing her home. She was such a sweet, gentle girl. Playful and full of spirit. She had this beautiful brindle coat with a patch of white on her chest. When she wagged her tail, she wagged her whole body. I noted she was still a bit saggy from nursing—okay, more than a bit—but that didn’t matter. I signed the paperwork, paid the fee, and we drove home together.

Home has always been a fluid concept for me. At the time, it was an old house with a gabled roof at the end of a quiet street, a couple of blocks from the elementary school I attended as a child. We’d only lived there a couple of months by the time The Dog of Destiny came along.

Springtime in Central NY. The Dog of Destiny lounging by her favorite tree.
Springtime in Central NY. The Dog of Destiny lounging by her favorite tree.

We spent two years living back in the quaint village beside the lake, where I grew up. Everyone in the neighborhood got to know The Dog of Destiny. She had a yard to romp and roam. She had her favorite hiking trail, the remnant of an old railroad line that ran along a creek. But, as ever, we had one foot out the door, and eventually it was time to go.

Dahlia took a job in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. It was a good opportunity, the next step up in her career. And I was writing. I was prepared to do that anywhere, preferably somewhere where I wasn’t shoveling snow in the dreary twilight for months on end.

We always knew our time in the States was limited. We bought a house knowing we would rent it someday. We adopted The Dog of Destiny knowing she was going with us, wherever in the world we decided to go.

Of course we were going to take her to Taiwan. It wasn’t a question. Though there was a long flight across an ocean. There was a quarantine. There was paperwork and various bureaucratic mountains to climb. There was considerable cost involved between the airline fees, the permits, the vet appointments, and the pet relocation service we employed to help us make it all happen.

And there was no small amount of worry and guilt.

It’s not like we could explain to her what was about to happen or where it was we were going, though I might have tried a time or two. We were asking a lot. We didn’t give her a vote. Though she likely would have voted to go with us wherever we went. I liked to think that anyway.

Dahlia and The Dog of Destiny, Cuesta Rock. Shitiping, Taiwan.
Dahlia and The Dog of Destiny, Cuesta Rock. Shitiping, Taiwan.

A week after we arrived in Taiwan, I picked up The Dog of Destiny from animal quarantine. She was happy and healthy and safe. It seemed like she had made friends with the people who worked there. They all came out say goodbye.

We’re getting to know the neighborhood where we live. We’re going for daily walks. The Dog of Destiny is making new friends in the park. She goes hiking and camping with us on weekends. She basically goes wherever we go. We only stay in dog-friendly hotels. Thankfully, there are quite a few here in Taiwan.

The Dog of Destiny is now an expatriate and a world traveller. She has already seen more of the world than most of the people I grew up with. More important, she’s with us. Our little family, that’s home wherever it is we happen to be in the world.

To be an other

I met Kenzie at a party. We were standing amidst of group of people engaged in small-talk, which is, admittedly, not an area of competence for me.

Kenzie said she felt liberated living in Taiwan. As a woman, as an African-American. Well, good. I’m glad, I thought. And I meant it.

The conversation carried on. I kept a toehold in it, while the rest of me went off somewhere. I took a booth at the back corner of my mind. There I carried on a separate conversation, albeit a related one.

And still, I nodded my head like a metronome, keeping time with the rhythm of the conversation. The guy feigning to listen was the amiable, somewhat socially competent part of me. That guy, unfortunately, decided to tuck in for the night. The old curmudgeon punched in for the late shift. He immediately decided Kenzie was a bonafide, card-carrying optimist—the curmudgeon suffered optimists like he suffered fools.

I bulldozed back into the conversation, no idea how long I’d stood there in absentia.

“But back to what Kenzie was saying, doesn’t our experience here have more to do with the fact we’re strangers? It’s not that there isn’t discrimination in Taiwan. It’s not like Taiwan has somehow eliminated prejudice, or that we won’t ever have to deal with it as foreigners living here.”

“We are still an other,” I said. “We are still outsiders. Maybe they (I meant Taiwanese people) just don’t know how to categorize us (I meant the expats in the room). We don’t fit into their daily experience. We aren’t easily placed within the established hierarchy. That isn’t to say there isn’t one. That isn’t to say we’re going to somehow avoid unfair treatment that has something to do with who are or how we look. Being an expat may work to our advantage sometimes, sometimes but…”

Dahlia put her hand on my arm, squeezed it gently. It was my curtain call, more subtle than a vaudeville hook, but it had desired effect.

That was weeks ago. But as I sat at the kitchen table this morning, I thought about that conversation, thought about what I might have said had Dahlia allowed me to carry on.

…we’re still foreigners. We will always be laowai. Because of the way we look. Because of our accent. Because culture leaves its mark. We will never quite belong, and for that, we’re always be made to pay the foreigner tax in one form or another.

I think that’s where I was going.

I might have hastened to add: This has nothing to do with Taiwanese culture. It has everything to do with the human condition. We are hard-wired to discriminate. We organize our world into competing tribes, us and them. It is baked into our DNA. 

This isn’t, of course, any kind of excuse. Our biology does not justify our prejudice. (I think I would have made that point clear.) We aren’t automatons after all. We have a will. We have a fucking choice, and we can choose to be better than that.

The creative doldrums

I’m not exactly on the clock. No TPS report due anytime soon. No boss man breathing down my neck. Just my own inner literary agent needling me like a mosquito: Hey bub, this mythological novel of yours, anyone ever gonna see it? 

I admit, words haven’t been forthcoming. Too many distractions, too many little, practical demands, all of which take me away from the difficult task of sitting in a room in silence, long enough for words to flow.

We are still occupied with settling in, doing the million-odd things that need to be done before one can feel settled. In our basic division of labor, this is my area of expertise responsibility.

I have two duties: 1) Figure out how to do things; and 2) Get things done. I’ve met with  limited success. We have a car now and a bank account. Yippee!

But everything takes longer in another country. Simple tasks defy simplicity. And, as ever, I am obstructed by the Great Wall of Chinese.

It is to be expected; this is how it goes; you have been here before, Dahlia reminds me almost daily, and I tamp down expectations and redouble my efforts.

Given the context, a weekend away seems an extravagance, an unconscionable waste of a nonrenewable resource—time. But perhaps a jaunt is exactly what is needed, the very thing to rescue the writer from the creative doldrums.

We shall see.

On expat friends

This is the expat life: you never know when someone you see every day is going to disappear forever, instantly transmogrifying into a phantom. Before long you won’t be able to remember her last name, the color of her eyes, the grades that her children were in. You can’t imagine not seeing her tomorrow. You can’t imagine you yourself being one of those people, someone who one day just vanishes. But you are.

—From the novel The Expats by Chris Pavone

Paths do diverge, and friendships do fade. But…

I don’t think anyone just vanishes, not in this digital age, not in this interconnected world, not unless it is a willful act, and not even then.

Maybe in the age of the steamboat and the telegram, but we have this thing called “social media” now.

And expats can and do build meaningful and lasting friendships. These friendships do conquer distance, and paths do cross again, more often than you might expect (speaking from personal experience here).

Distance is not the formidable barrier it once was, and expat friendships are often made of stronger stuff.

But then again, what the hell do I know?

The water situation

Conversation with Dahlia via text:

Me: What about water situation?

Dahlia: Emailed about it.

ME: And?

Dahlia: Waiting to hear back.

Me: By the way, can’t flush toilet. No water left in tank.

Dahlia: Did you put water in the bucket and do a firm swooshing motion?

Me: Swooshing? No idea what you mean. What bucket?

Dahlia: Have you done this before?

Me: How hard can it be?

Dahlia: You trying to manually flush a toilet? Don’t see it going well.

Me: Seems easy enough.

Dahlia: But things have a way of defying your expectations.

Me: Point taken.

Maslov’s hierarchy of needs. I remember learning about it in some course I took way back when. There’s this pyramid, at the top of which sits “self-actualization,” which has to do with reaching one’s full potential. If and only if every other need has been met (I think) can a person hope to achieve his full potential.

If so, I’m fucked. At least for the foreseeable future. At the very least until someone turns the fucking water back on.

A quick assessment of current conditions has me situated far below the pinnacle of self-actualization. I’m stumbling around in the basement of Maslow’s stupid pyramid looking for a light switch. Good luck chasing the next great American novel when you can’t wash you hands after you take a shit, can’t flush the toilet either. (Too much information, I know.)

The problem began last night, right around the time I turned on a faucet and… Nothing, not a drop of water issued forth. That’s funny, I thought. I checked the washing machine, saw a strange symbol flashing. I opened the lid to see what was happening, and wouldn’t you know it? The clothes were still dry.

A sinking feeling. Well, this isn’t good, I thought. Then I went to the bathroom and turned on the shower, hoping against hope… A trickle, nothing more.

“Well shit,” I muttered. “Wonder what that’s about.” Then I yelled to Dahlia in the next room, “Hope you weren’t planning on taking a shower tonight.”

“Why? Whats’s going on?”

“Just a little problem with the water?”

“What’s the problem?”

“We have none.”

“Wait. We have no problem or no water?”

“No water. We have no water. That’s what I’m trying to say.”

“Well that sucks.”

Does this happen often? I wonder. Is this a thing in Taiwan? How long exactly is it going to last? And who do I call to find out? I ask myself these questions and many others. I’m nothing if not inquisitive.

But it’s morning now, and I have no answers. And I still have no water. Safe to say someone somewhere turned off the tap for some odd reason. That’s all I got.

This is a grave matter, one of basic hygiene. Skipping a shower or two in this climate is inadvisable. I inhabit a body poorly conditioned to the tropics. No amount of cologne will conceal that fact for long. Vanity makes this my first concern, above other trivial concerns like washing dishes, flushing toilets, and doing the laundry.

But what to do? [He shrugs.] Add it to the growing list of things I haven’t a clue what to do about.

The basic problem is that I don’t speak Chinese. Not yet anyway, and not anytime soon. It will, in all likelihood, be months before I can utter a basic sentence, and many months more before I can actually make myself understood—and that may prove to be blindly optimistic.

So for the time-being, the language problem is solved by asking myself this question: Who can we find to help solve this? Dahlia’s working on that, which is the best I hope for. The second best is to wait it out with my fingers crossed.

In the meantime, I’m trying to put aside the headaches and hassles, trying to take it all in stride, reminding myself this is all part of it. This is what happens when you move to an unfamiliar place, especially one where you find yourself linguistically and culturally illiterate, decidedly so.

And in the grand scheme this teensy tiny infinitesimal problem of ours is hardly worth the mention. I can hardly justify the expense of emotion. It would be nice to take a shower though.

Hanging out with Eddie on a weekday—Notes

Eddie hands me a card as we approach the ferry terminal. He just so happens to have two cards in his wallet charged with the necessary fare. We wave them in front of a scanner. The attendant waves us through.

“Hey, where do you get one of those cards?” I ask.

“7-Eleven. You get everything at 7-Eleven,” Eddie replies. Come to find out, he’s not kidding.

###

Eddie the tour guide. Eddie the fixer. Eddie the guy who knows all the angles. Eddie the waiguoren—who can practically order his spicy noodles in Chinese, doesn’t even have to point at the pictures on the special foreigner menu. Eddie, who completely understood the immediacy of the situation, drove me all the Taipei and back (from Kaohsiung)—all in a day, all so I could liberate the Dog of Destiny from quarantine. Helluva guy, Eddie. We go way back.

Eddie’s an old friend from Colorado. We lived in the same apartment building. Our dogs were best friends. We went to the dog park on weekends.

Then one fine day Dahlia and I announced we were moving to Brazil. (This was years ago).

Reactions were mixed—sincere congratulations muddled with bemusement and genuine concern for our welfare. Eddie was unguarded in his enthusiasm. He understood our need to go.

A year he was visiting us in Rio de Janeiro. It was his first trip overseas. It opened something in him. He went home and made plans to see the world. Then he sold his house, offloaded his worldly possessions, and headed East across the Pacific.

I like to think we nudged him in that direction.

Eddie ended up in Taiwan teaching English. We ended up visiting him. It was to be last stop on our way back to the U.S. for what was to become a two-year hiatus from international life.

At some point during that trip, I remember saying to Dahlia, “You know, I think we could be live here.”

Two years later Dahlia and I moved to Taiwan.

###

Cijin Island—a sand bar 8.5 km long, 400 meters wide—forms the western boundary of Kaohsiung Harbor, Taiwan’s busiest port. It’s a bustling tourist area.

It was discovered in the 17th century by a Chinese fisherman, who took shelter there during a storm. He came back with a group of settlers and a statue of Matsu (a sea goddess of Chinese folk religion). So the story goes.

Cijin Island is a five minute ride on the Gushan-Cijin ferry.

###

We’re on a some street, some dive a block or so from the beach. A handful of empty tables parked outside. A stack of empty bottles tossed into a bin just inside the door. Flies buzzing about. There is a fogged up cooler in the back stocked with Taiwan Beer—our initial only attraction to the place.

The barkeep was a weathered wisp of a man, sun-baked, beach bum hair streaked with gray. He was wearing board shorts and flip-flops.

I thought the place was empty, then saw him  lounging in a back corner. But maybe he wasn’t the barkeep at all, I thought. Maybe he was just hanging out, a sodden patron squatting there for the long haul. He served us drinks because, why the hell not?

(Oh the writer’s imagination! How it leaps to invent. How it flows into the gaps that exist between demonstrable fact.)

###

We sit at table overlooking a vacant lot sipping our cold beers. The table’s painted in rastafarian colors.

It’s hot. I watch the sweat bead on my forearm and try to make out the shoreline through a stand of trees. I notice a hill, some kind of overlook. People taking pictures, silhouettes like shadow puppets against the sky. A photographer coaching his model. She poses; he snaps away.

“Must be a view up there,” I say. “Bet you get a sweep of the whole island.”

“There’s this cliff you can jump off into the water over that way,” Eddie informs me.

“Oh yeah?”

“Think it used to be military land,” he says. “There’s a trail, and you climb through a fence…”

“…and tiptoe around the old landmines,” I interject.

Eddie laughs. “Wanted to take you guys sometime. Maybe next time we come out here.”

“Yeah, OK. Sure. Why not?”  Not at all convinced.

###

I’d spent the previous morning hunting for books in English. I visited several bookstores and came away empty-handed. I hit the jackpot at Mollie Used Books.

I walked away with as many books as I could carry—among other treasures: The Art of Travel by Alain De Botton.

I mention the book Eddie. Then I trying to relate what I’d just been reading There is some point I wanted to make about travel, about life overseas, but I’d too much sun and one too many beers.

###

De Botton writes about the anticipation of travel. He relates an anecdote about a fictional character, a misanthropic Frenchman who rarely ventures outside his own home, but who nevertheless dreams about traveling to London after reading a Charles Dickens novel.

In the end, the Frenchman decides not to go. He concludes the real thing could never live up the London that exists in his imagination. “What could he expect to find over there except fresh disappointments? the Frenchman asks.”

What De Botton was getting at: We revel in the anticipation of the journey, and we relish the memory of the journey upon our return, but we fail to fully appreciate the experience of travel in real time, so worried are we about the lives we left behind, lives we are never able to fully disengage from.

What is left of the journey in the end: a handful of Polaroid memories fading in the mind’s eye.

###

I get a little philosophical after a couple of beers. Eddie knows this about me.

“Here we are,” I say, “sipping beers in the hot sun. In the middle of the day. In the middle of the week. At some dive bar. On a little island off the coast of another little island. Far far from home—whatever than means.“

Eddie looks at me as if to say, “And…”

And what? The point, if I ever had one, was lost.

###

Eddie says he wants to show me something on our way back to the ferry. It’s an old catamaran marooned in a vacant lot. It’s clearly been there for some time.

“I thought about buying a boat, sailing around the world after I sold my house  in Colorado,” Eddie says.

“Sure there’s a story here with this one,” I say, and then after a beat: “Wonder how it ended up here.”

Eddie shrugs. “It clearly needs a lot of work. Imagine coming over here on weekends, slowly fixing it up.”

“I thought about sailing,” I confess. “I like the idea of it. Just packing up and setting sail.”

“Yeah.” Eddie says.

“Though I have no idea how to sail,” I say.

Eddie laughs. “Me neither, but I always wanted to learn.”

“Me too.”

We linger there for a moment, dreaming in late afternoon sun.