My false memory is of driving across a narrow bridge that sits low to a large body of water, with a shin high wall. We get out of the car and it's misty and I look across a lake of fire. I was not raised a Christian and my grasp of Christianity is hazy and probably misinformed by popular Western culture, and my first grade year at a Catholic school. So, when I speak of a lake of fire, I am not talking about hell in the Christian sense. This was more like a volcanic lake of fire. Taiwan has many dormant volcanoes, and there are hot springs across the island, but as far as I know, the lake of fire of my memory does not exist. I don't know where it came from but I can date the false memory to my visit in 1999.
That same year I thought I was moving to Taiwan to teach English, and I did, for a few months, but I began to feel alienated because I was living with my Taiwanese family and I wasn't able to participate in the expat culture. I briefly dated an Australian teacher but our dates were chaste affairs that involved bad Taiwanese pizza and visits to Internet cafes where we checked our e-mail and the lives we left back home. I'd just graduated from college, was in my early twenties and thought I was missing an important chance to have formative experiences with my peers living with my aunt and my mother's paranoia (she was convinced I'd be kidnapped if I was allowed to take the bus or ride a motor scooter by myself).
Before I went back to New York to face whatever Y2K was going to unleash upon us, we went to Jiu Fen, my mother's home town. When my grandfather died from a stomach ailment in his late 30s my grandmother was pregnant. After she gave birth, she gave her son up for adoption to a neighboring family, bought land in central Taiwan, and relocated the family. I used to think my grandmother gave up my uncle for superstitious reasons (and she partially did) but now I know part of it must have been grief. My mother was about nine years old.
My mother says my agong he was a handsome playboy who wore a white suit. The only other things I know about him are that he, like my great-grandfather, was a gold miner, and when Japan lost WWII, and the Nationalists fled to Taiwan from China, both my grandfather and great grandfather hid in the mountains above Jiu Fen for fear they would be rounded up and be accused of being collaborators with the Japanese (who colonized Taiwan for 50 years). What might have been considered collaboration was just business to my family. The Japanese government held mining rights and my family wanted to mine gold.
I visited Jiu Fen in December and the weather was mid-fifties, high humidity, and drizzling with that whispy mountain fog that streaks Taiwan's peaks. I remember our clothes were always damp and my cousin's wife tried to dry my pants using a hair dryer. My mother's uncle had several large trophies on top of his television--awards from karaoke contests. He serenaded us for hours in Taiwanese, and my aunt, fifteen years older than my mother (and just fifteen years younger than my grandmother) sang Japanese songs because her few years of schooling was in Japanese. She taught herself how to read Chinese as an adult and still does not speak Mandarin well. My mother having gone to school when Mandarin was required and Taiwanese was suppressed, sang in Taiwanese.
We walked along the touristy Jiu Fen Old Street at night to eat regional snacks, but we spent our days taking trips around northern Taiwan. I think we passed the French cemetery in Keelung (who knew the French tried to take Keelung during the Sino-French War? Who knew about the Sino-French War?). We stopped in McDonald's for french fries (okay, I ate the french fries). We visited that spooky geologic oddity, Yehliu.
Here's some fiction I wrote about that place:
This is fiction. What I probably felt when I visited was a post-teenage annoyance at my mother, and begrudging wonder at the weirdness of the place. It wasn't until I'd left and could only see it in my mind that it took on greater significance. And the same thing happened with Jiu Fen itself.The geological park was at the edge of the sea and one of the weird pockmarked caves was named the Lover's Den. The words were carved on a plaque in Chinese and English and hung above the entrance as if to give invitation to couples in case of a storm. I never learned much Chinese but the bottom of the character for lian, was the character for heart--xin. I pointed it out to my mother and she said, “Lian is a funny word. It means to love, but it also means to miss someone or be homesick.”It made sense to me. The landscape was lunar and strange. The sea had eroded and carved fantastical shapes out of the sand colored rocks. As the sea pounded the rocks and sent spray above our heads, loneliness suffused the air. It was the perfect place to wallow and nurse an unrequited love. It was a place to make a suicide pact. Someplace conjured in the mind of a poet.
Here's more of my fiction:
It took a movie to make my mother's hometown come alive again. City of Sadness. Jiu Fen's economic depression preserved its heritage—buildings clung to the sides of the mountain like stone mushrooms, unchanged from the gold boom heyday.
In the distance, at the summit of another peak stands a temple to Tu Di Gong, a Daoist earth god. When the gold boom arrived the temple was overwhelmed by men lining up the mountain track leading to the temple, eager to make their offerings to Tu Di Gong, in the hopes that theirs would be the lucky strike. Tempers flared and the crowds became unmanageable for the temple monks. They made an offering to Tu Di Gong, and threw down red wooden half-moon shaped divination blocks and asked if they should move the temple to a new location. No matter how many times the question was reiterated, the answer was the same. The red blocks landed smooth side up, indicating that Tu Di Gong was angry. In the end, instead of moving the icon of Tu Di Gong, the monks built a larger temple around the original wooden temple. A temple inside a temple; Tu Di Gong sat safe inside the inner chamber, the heart of Fushan temple.
As the mist floats above, the sea heaves below, and the temple stands in the far distance, people crowd the narrow lanes, engaging in the nostalgia tourism that sustains Jiu Fen now that the gold is too deep for human hands to extract. Teahouses and food stalls line the alleys. My second cousin knows which stalls sell the best regional delicacies.
A gold miner's son, he runs a guesthouse where his wife uses a hair dryer to take the damp out of his socks.
When my grandfather died my grandmother relocated to the central plains where the heat dries clothes on the line within the hour.
On our last day we passed a gated tunnel, with the words Tunnel Number 5 carved above the curved entrance. My second cousin tells my mother that their fathers worked inside, side-by-side.
Not allowed to visit my grandfather's grave for superstitious reasons, when I peer into the dark tunnel, I imagine that Tunnel Number Five is where his spirit lives no matter the facts or reasons why not.I had the haunting images but no plot. That came when I spent the long weekend of the Jewish New Year 2014 not sleeping. It was starting to make me a little crazy. I decided to sit down and figure out the structural problem at the heart of a difficult novel I've been working on for years. I finally figured out how to make Jiu Fen a character, and tie it into a central conflict, without relying on my family's actual history. Then, still not able to sleep, I thought I might tire myself out by exercising so I did some sit ups using a balance ball and managed to do something to my inner ear and couldn't walk straight. I went to the hospital once I started throwing up. It passed. I didn't have a stroke. I'm still working on the difficult novel on and off. I'm still thinking about Jiu Fen and I hope to go back, alone, or with a friend, so I can view it the way my character would, without the crutch of interpretation my mother would provide. I hope I can finally get a copy of my family's jia pu (Chinese genealogical record). My mother says my Taiwanese family left Fujian province for Taiwan more than a hundred years ago. I asked her how she knew that and she said, "It's in the book." I hope I finish my book.
Visiting a place that haunts you is an attempt to capture what you were and what you hope to be. It might be impossible but it's why we return. I know the lake of fire doesn't exist but in fiction it could. That's where it lives.