Eating Turtle

 

The sweet-salty broth on my lips.

The winding streets of Taipei, the skyscrapers giving way to stout homes.

The incense in my hands, three sticks, walking up to three altars for three deities, placing a stick at each one. Praying for safe travels, for my friends who are sick or hurting, for my future.

The stinky tofu vendor on the corner, the words tumbling out of my mouth, hoping I don’t get them wrong.

That first day there, sweat at my temples, feet pounding on the sidewalk, trying to find a place that has a menu in English. Eating by myself on a hard plastic chair, hard table beneath my elbows, slurping down noodles, watching the faces pass, looking away.

A turtle in your throat—those feelings you can’t say—and the steam rising up from our teas as we look across the table at each other.

You ask me what I want—what I want to order. “What do you recommend?” I say.

You always seem to have an answer.

***

When a mutual friend—a young Taiwanese man I met while traveling in South Korea the year before—introduced us over Facebook Messenger, I was wary. I remembered how it had been my first year teaching in South Korea at age 22, all these strangers wanting to meet me, in part because, as a foreigner, I was a unique addition to anyone’s social circle, and in part because my language was a commodity in rural Korea in 2006. Everyone wanted to learn English, and if they didn’t, they wanted their kids to. Families took me on day trips to show me the countryside. Parents introduced me to their middle schoolers and invited me over for dinner. Koreans who had lived abroad took me out to coffee—both because they remembered what it was like to be a stranger in a strange land but also because their English was getting rusty and they wanted—they wanted—

Everyone wanted something. The lonely 40-something with a struggling marriage, the father with ambitious plans for his kid’s future, the social worker in her mid-30s who was unmarried and lived at home with her aging father and had watched her life slip by, had felt she was never really in it—except for those times when she traveled to India or Canada or anywhere else but the small city where we both lived.

The thing is, in each case, we both benefited from these symbiotic relationships. I was a lonely foreigner in need of friends, and there were all these folks who wanted to connect. But several months into that adventure, I couldn’t tell anymore: Who wanted to know me to know me, and who only wanted an English tutor? Or a salve for their own woundedness?

And what was it that I really wanted?

***

I wait for you at the bottom of Taipei 101, a gleaming tower that juts up above the city’s skyline. I stand just outside of the subway stop’s entrance, throngs of visitors bustling by me on their way to dinner or home or another spot along the tourist trail. Neon lights from the tower blink down, the night sky a black ceiling above me. The escalator seems to carry people up into that darkness, and at the top, they disappear over the edge and into the sky. And as face after face comes back down, I realize I don’t even know what you look like.

And I still can’t figure out why you would want to hang out with me—why you said “yes” to our mutual friend’s request to make this foreigner feel welcome. And as for me, I’m no longer the stereotypical young American woman I was when I first lived in Asia. In the intervening ten years, I’ve cut my hair short, started wearing men’s clothes, donned a chest binder, and come out as loudly and proudly queer—and, within the last year, non-binary. Loud and proud, that is, except in foreign countries sometimes, and with people I don’t know, and—

You find me at the bottom of the escalator. You recognize me first, but then again, my foreignness sometimes makes me stand out. Your greeting is quiet, your English cautious but impeccable.

You point to the glimmering lights of the tower. “Are you hungry?”

***

Inside Taipei 101, you add our names to the list of waiting customers at Din Tai Fung, the world-famous xiao long bao (Taiwanese soup dumplings) restaurant. The hostess tells you the wait will be about an hour, and so we walk into the mall that occupies the bottom few floors of Taipei 101, turning circles to kill the time.

The floor glistens beneath our feet. We wend our way through the twists and turns. Most of the shops are closed, but their wares shine at us along with images of happy people with sparkling watches and mannequins with pressed shirts. You ask me about my travels. I tell you I’ve been on the road for almost a year, that I’ve traveled to 13 countries in that time, that I haven’t seen my family or friends in the U.S. since I left the year before. That I would be going back in a month.

You wonder aloud at how good and bad it must be to travel so far and so long alone. “Did you get lonely?” you ask.

I don’t know how to answer, but I try. “Sometimes,” I say. “Sometimes I got very lonely. But every month or so, I’d meet up with someone I knew. A couple friends took vacations to travel with me. In Myanmar, I met up with an old buddy from college who was teaching in Yangon. And I stayed with my Korean homestay sister in Seoul—the one I lived with when I taught there—for almost three months last summer. And, you know, I’ve met so many kind people along the way.”

You stare at the ground for a moment and then look back at me, your face serious. “You must see the world in a different way now. From when you left.”

I nod. “We are all so small,” I say. “But so connected.”

***

I didn’t come out to my homestay sister Boyeon until I had to. I’d stayed in her one-bedroom apartment in Seoul all summer the year before I traveled to Taipei—sharing a yo, a Korean sleeping mat, like we were at a months-long slumber party. I knew she was open-minded, but anti-LGBTQ sentiment runs strong in South Korea, especially among Korean Christians. And she was Christian, and we were sharing a bed. What if she freaked out, or I made her uncomfortable? Or what if it changed everything between us—this bond we’d forged over ten years? She was always physically affectionate with me, just like a sister would be. What if she didn’t hug me anymore or reconsidered all those small gestures that happened between us—a light touch on the arm or a head on the shoulder?

She accompanied me on the first leg of my world travels after we spent that summer together in Seoul. We were on our way to meet up with one of her colleagues who would take us on a weeklong road trip through southern India from Karnataka to Kerala and back. We had an overnight layover in Bangkok and were staying in a hostel, sharing a bed again.

After we’d settled in for the evening, in our pajamas and snuggled under the covers, she asked me about how I dressed—when I started wearing men’s clothes and why. Over the summer, she’d helped me shop in men’s sections of clothing stores in Seoul—UNIQLO and Bang Bang—finding short-sleeved button-ups and shorts to help me survive the hot, humid summer. I told her a little about my gender journey—how I’d been a tomboy as a kid, how I tried to fit in with the other girls in high school and college, how, in my late 20s, I ultimately realized my masculinity was a beautiful part of who I was and am. And how I’d hesitated to express that because, in the past, I’d been afraid that I’d never find a boyfriend if I did.

I hesitated. There was another part of the story I wasn’t telling her. How dating women and other queer folks had made that transition easier. How the people I dated now found my gender non-conformity more attractive than off-putting.

I cleared my throat. “So… you know I don’t just date men, right?” She gave me a quizzical look. “I date women, too. And other people who don’t identify as men.”

She looked at me, her expression unreadable. “No, I didn’t know.”

I shifted my gaze to the ceiling and launched back into my explanation of my gender, eager to get away from the subject of my queerness.

As we went to be that night, I wondered if things would be different in the morning—if, once she processed this revelation, I’d see that slight hitch in her affections.

But I found in the morning that nothing had changed. And nothing changed during our trip.

She still linked her arm in mine as we walked down the street. She still put her head on my shoulder when we had long, serious talks into the night.

She still loved me as much as she ever had.

***

During our dinner, there in the middle of Din Tai Fung, over the steaming plates of dumplings and green leaves of morning glory that are cooked to silky perfection, you come out to me. You tell me about your partner—your girlfriend—and the problems you’re having. How you almost didn’t meet me that night because you’d just had a terrible argument. How you don’t know how to proceed—how you love each other and live together, but maybe it’s ending.

There is something to the words you give to me then. Something in your trust.

I wonder if our friend knew—the one who introduced us. If he’d seen enough of my Facebook and blog posts to realize that this was what I needed—and perhaps what you needed, too. After months of walking a fine line between being myself and hiding myself, was this his, and your, gift to me?

We eat until our stomachs are full and speak until our tongues are tired.

“I am glad I came here,” you tell me as the server clears our plates. “I was so sad before I arrived because of things with my girlfriend. But I’m grateful to have spent this time with you. It is what I needed, I think.”

“Me, too,” I say.

You pause, looking at me with a small smile. “Talking with you—it’s like looking in a mirror, but different.”

***

In the days that follow, you introduce me to your brother first, and then your other friends and your girlfriend. We gather around large tables in local restaurants and eat meats and greens and ladle soups from shared bowls. We do a tea tasting in a local tea shop, sipping from small cups and glasses. A few days later, I am on a train that is taking me out of the city. You have to work, but your friends and your partner and your brother guide me into the beautiful, rolling hillsides of your island nation. We stop in a town where tourists release paper balloons with messages of hope scrawled across them. It is a small town, and the balloons are released along the railroad tracks, and up they fly into the sky, each color representing a different kind of wish—for love, for money, for peace. I see one that says “health and wealth” written in Korean. On another, “Impeach Trump” is scrawled in big block letters in English. We watch as they float higher and higher into the bright blue sky above us.

I eat candy that your friends buy from a corner store—one with old stuff they used to get when they were kids—and they tell me stories about them, stories and memories, there as the snacks crunch in our mouths and candies melt together on our tongues, sweet and hard.

Later, you take me to a bubble tea café, supposedly one of the original ones, and everyone is there—your friends and your partner and your brother, and even the mutual friend who introduced us, who came out from behind his books and came out to me as well, and somehow here we are, this rainbow-tinged crowd of sorts. I sip on my sweet milk tea through a fat straw, the tapioca boba popping into my mouth. Their chewy texture sticks to my teeth, and I drink down the iced tea to wash it away.

You ask me if I have a Korean name. I tell you I was given one once, but I’d forgotten it. Instead, I write my name out in Korean characters: 알렉시스 (al-leg-shi-seu). You and your friends brainstorm names for me with Chinese characters. You discuss the options like you’re figuring out a puzzle, or perhaps a little like Goldilocks—one name is too feminine, another too masculine—before landing on a few that could go either way. That represent things like strength and intelligence and kindness. You write the names on the back of a coaster and hand it to me. I trace the lines of the names you’ve chosen for me. When we stand to leave, I slip the coaster into my back pocket.

***

My gender was a constant source of confusion for others as I traveled. In New Delhi, I was asked to leave the women’s subway car. In Korea, in an airport bathroom, an older woman looked me up and down and said to a bystander in Korean, “Is that a man or a woman?” I smiled at her and said in Korean, “I’m a woman.” She quickly apologized. When this happened again in Ho Chi Minh City—one of the staff members at a railway station tried to guide me to the men’s restroom—I didn’t have the willpower or Vietnamese skill to respond, so I just went outside, hailed a cab, and waited until I got to my hostel to use the bathroom.

Still, I found pockets of acceptance where I could—at the Seoul Pride festival, in a lesbian bar in Singapore, at an LGBTQ-friendly Anglican retreat center in the Australian desert, with a pair of queer folks who happened to run a guesthouse in rural Vietnam.

And I traveled with queer friends, too. Over Christmas, I traveled with one of my best friends, Jen, through Singapore and Malaysia. We had dated years before, but in typical queer fashion, had become closer as exes than we ever were as partners. In Kuala Lumpur, vibrant displays of lights lit up stores and street corners with bows and boxes and snowflakes and Christmas trees, though we sweated through our clothes in the hot afternoons. On our first evening there, we wandered through the crowds that were gathering along the Jalan Alor Food Street, ordering dumplings and chowing down on pork buns before grabbing seats at one of the white plastic tables set up outside a food vendor’s stall. The table before us became filled with rice and noodles and soup and meats cooked in savory and spicy sauces.

When we got back to the hostel, one of the staff members handed us the laundry we’d asked them to do when we arrived. As we sorted our clothes in our small room, I found that my shirts were covered in red stains. They had washed my clothes with the laundry bag I’d been using—a red canvas bag I’d picked up on a tour in India. It had bled all over everything.

I joked with Jen that being queer had ruined my clothes. Before arriving in Malaysia, I’d put my dirty clothes in a reusable bag I’d picked up at Creating Change, a national conference for queer and trans activists, but since it said “LGBTQ Task Force” on it, I’d switched it out for the other bag after we arrived in Kuala Lumpur. I looked queer enough as it was, I thought, but there was no need for me to advertise it.

Jen didn’t find my joke funny, but she didn’t explain why my stained clothing (and the management’s lack of apology) had made her so angry until we got to our next destination.

“I didn’t want to tell you before,” she said, “but the manager who we gave our clothes to that first day? I overheard him tell some of the other staff members, ‘I’m doing the homosexuals’ laundry, and it smells like big fish.’” She shook her head. “I wondered if they ruined your clothing on purpose.”

“Maybe they were just careless,” I said.

I thought over her words in the months that followed, though. I had tried to hide who I was— at least in part—but had failed. By cutting my hair short, by wearing men’s clothes, by wearing a chest binder, was I putting myself—and my traveling companions—at risk?

I became more cautious each time I went to a new country. I wouldn’t change who I was, but I wouldn’t be so open either. I had to remember that despite the connectedness I felt to so many around me, it wasn’t always safe to be myself.

***

We sit together in a coffeeshop the last evening I’m in town. The coffeeshop is called Fika Fika, a Swedish word that’s about drinking coffee together but also about taking the time— pausing—to be with the people you love. So much of our time together has been over meals, and you tell me how much food means in Taiwanese culture and in the Chinese language. For example, you say, the phrase “eating grass” means getting back together with an ex. Another phrase involving grass means moving on from an ex. If someone is “eating humans,” they’re selfish.

And there’s another phrase, you say. “Eating turtle.” It’s when your emotions get stuck in your throat. You can’t say the things you want to say, and it’s frustrating—but the words get stuck because they’re too full of feeling.

You tell me we have only known each other for a short time, but you and your friends—in one week, we have become so close. But you don’t know how to express, how to say—

***

In the morning, before I take the train to the Taipei airport, I meet you and one of your friends for one more meal before I go. We return to your apartment after—a one-room apartment with space mostly taken up by a large piano. You and your partner are musicians. I meet your cat, and you make us tea, and your friend asks about your partner and how things are going and we play a game of Chinese checkers on your phone.

Your friend says something to you in Chinese, and you smile sadly.

“It’s about saying goodbye,” you say, gesturing to your friend, who has somehow become my friend.

“We have a saying,” she says. “Every meal must end.”

You nod slowly. “But how do you deal with knowing every meal must end?”

***

When I lived in Korea, my co-teacher, and others I grew to love there, told me of the thin red threads that connect our hearts together—that connect us to those we love from one lifetime to the next. As a white person who practices Christianity (but is influenced by Buddhism, the Desert Mothers and Fathers and Christian mystics, and other faith and spiritual traditions), I feel a little odd repeating these kinds of words. It is not my concept to share, and yet the love I felt there was real, and the threads they told me about make sense.

Besides, how else do you explain it? That feeling you have that you’ve known someone before? That tug that pulls you to somewhere far away—another country, another land—only to feel more at home than you ever did in your own country?

***

I remember meeting you at the bottom of that escalator, how you seemed shy at first, but then the words flowed out like promises. For so many of these months of traveling, I’d hidden— hidden these parts of myself from a world in which I didn’t know if I was safe to be me. I had met such kind people along the way, but this was something different.

My glasses steamed up over the boiling hot pots, you filled our tables with local delicacies and told me what they were and that they were the best at each place we went. You welcomed me in. You made me a home.

In Korean, there’s a word for that kind of connection, a love beyond space and time, beyond family (though it often includes family)—this bond that latches one to another. Koreans have this word, jeong, and the Taiwanese have all these phrases about food. But in English there’s only “love,” there’s only this one word, but I want so many words—I want something to describe the force that draws me across oceans, what it means to find people you can bring your whole self to, how it feels when you say goodbye to someone you’re certain you’ve known for lifetimes. But the words aren’t there, and the feelings get stuck in my throat. “We will meet again,” I say the morning I leave.

“We will,” you answer.

And somehow, I know it to be true.

 

Contributor

 
Alexis Stratton Photo_By Forrest Clonts.jpg

Alexis Stratton

Alexis Stratton is a native of Illinois but has spent their life in many homes, from New Orleans to South Korea. They have an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Carolina, and their work has appeared or is forthcoming in storySouth, Hayden's Ferry Review, Argot Magazine, Matador Review, Oyez Review, and Blue Mesa Review, among other publications. After years of working in domestic and sexual violence prevention and LGBTQ advocacy in South Carolina, they left their job, sold their things, and began a multiyear journey across the globe in 2016. They currently live in Colorado, where they work as a freelance writer, editor, and filmmaker.

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