A Stranger's ID

Chi Ta-wei

Artwork by Legend Hou Chun-Ming

In the 14 years since "A Stranger's ID" was first published, LGBT people and activists have become more visible in Taiwan and new resources have become readily available for those differently situated on the continuum of AIDS infection. In fact, Taipei City has become one of the hotspots of LGBT culture in East Asia, with a more inclusive nightlife and annual Gay Pride parades, the 2011 edition attracting 50,000 street participants. In the new millennium, advanced medical treatment has become available (albeit still unaffordable to certain segments of the population); NGO associations for those who live with the virus are on the rise; celebrities and politicians alike have become more and more willing to show up in ads fighting AIDS. However, hysterical fears surrounding AIDS still do occur from time to time.

In 2011, the accidental death of a person with AIDS (PWA) entailed ethics lessons for Taiwanese society. His family, unaware of his serostatus, donated his organs to the medical system, which in turn implanted them in five different patients—without confirming the serostatus of these organs. After the organ recipients proved infected, state actors and prominent voices in society were so agitated that they were determined to demonize the deceased PWA and punish the other PWAs: there were efforts to stamp the health insurance cards of PWAs so that they could not keep their serostatus confidential. As these (homo)phobic efforts have been—temporarily—checked by the AIDS activists, the fears associated with the AIDS imaginary continue to haunt Taiwanese society.

Yet it should be noted that in the rapid growth of lesbian and gay literature in 1990s Taiwan following the lift of the Martial Law in 1987, an impressive number of literary and other artistic representations have dealt openly with AIDS. One example is the award-winning novel Notes from a Desolate Man by Chu T'ien-wen, whose work is also published in this issue of Asymptote. Since 2000, literature at large, written by authors gay and non-gay alike, has treated AIDS as a quotidian issue; nevertheless, AIDS-related fears still persist, as the above episode attests.

The story published here reflects the then-common perception of the police as a state apparatus violating the rights of those who inhabit society's margins. After the turn of the century, the police may have put on a much friendlier face, but it is by many different, more nuanced, even invisible means that the nation state, along with many conservative groups, such as the religious right, monitor and control societal minorities. For instance, the educational system largely prevents K12 students from knowing and discussing the variety of sexual orientations, and K12 students who cannot conform to the normative gender system, i.e. "corrected" into being straight, sometimes see no other option than suicide.

Fin-de-siècle Taiwan was for me marked by two fears: that of the exposure of a citizenry's private lives (including their sexual preferences and serostatuses) to the homophobic state apparatuses in Taiwan, and that of the uncontrollable influx from Southeast Asia and from China, in the form of illegal migrant workers. In "A Stranger's ID", I have attempted to reveal a convergence of these two particular fears.

Chi Ta-wei

It was the tail end of summer, the height of the blaze. Unable to meet up with his buddy that evening, One Stripe ate alone in the patrol car, wolfing down beef and onion noodles in a styrofoam bowl. In his haste he bit his own lip, what a fucking drag, and red soup splashed the split. It hurt, but he lacked the energy to care. He hadn't even shaved today.

One A.M., the border of Taipei City and Yungho, Taipei County: the deserted Yongfu Bridge on the Hsintien River. This was the junior officer's favorite post, because once they were on the bridge, people were left no escape route: no one could get away. One Stripe wore an orange-and-white reflective vest, and against his chest the weight of a gun grounded his lightheadedness. In his hand he clutched a wanted notice with three mug shots. The faces of these men had been memorized long ago, along with their nicknames, their heights, and even their star signs (Capricorn, Virgo, and Taurus—he'd worked it out from their dates of birth). But he didn't let go of the notice crushed almost to a pulp in his hand. It was on account of these three, and others like them, less famous but just as vicious and bloodthirsty, that One Stripe and his buddy were spending longer and longer on duty, more and more time standing around. This time, his buddy wasn't sharing his shift.

The summer night air was unsettled, the bridge's traffic scarce.

He waved down a scooter and ordered the driver to dismount, switch off the engine, remove the helmet, and produce identification.

One Stripe switched on his flashlight. The circle of light looked like a fun-park mirror, framing the other's shrunken form.

A chalk-white face, a silent head with yellow-brown hair to the shoulders, and behind the hair the faintly glimpsed gleam of an earring.

No ID.

Questions flashed through One Stripe's mind: Was this a man or a woman? Might they be on the wanted list? Were they Taiwanese, mainland Chinese (illegal immigrant?), Thai or Burmese (illegal laborer?). There were all types in Taipei County—the variables were too numerous—and this damn kid had no proof of identity.

He addressed the human shape held immobile in the ring of light.

"Lee shee zhabo, zhamoh?"

"What?" The other was a little nervous.

"I said, are you a man or a woman?"

"A man."

"Don't you understand Taiwanese? Are you from Taiwan? Are you a foreigner, then? Why is your hair that color?"

When the boy tried to explain, his voice was faint and trembling.

"I'm not a foreigner... I just dyed my hair today..."

I'm not a foreigner: I was born and raised in Yungho, I've never in my life been overseas on vacation, and now I don't know if I'll ever get the chance. My hair's this color because of Foxy. I went to see Foxy today. He washes people's hair in a beauty salon. In the afternoon I went to his house looking for him, and he was home. It was him that dyed my hair. Foxy says, you just have to change the color of the hair on the outside of your skull, and you change the mood of the brain on the inside. The hair dye splashed onto my white T-shirt, and it looked like blood.

"Why don't you have identification?"

"I forgot it."

In fact, today I left the house without bringing anything at all, no money and no ID. When I left I couldn't think straight, my head was on the point of exploding. About to lose my mind, how could I think to bring ID? But unless I left the house to get some air I'd have died in there.

"What's your name? How old are you?"

"My name is Li Ziqiang... nineteen..."

Actually, I'm only seventeen and nine months and of course I don't have a license, but better not tell the truth about that. I'm not about to give my real name to this guy; I gave Foxy's name. I don't know why, but every time someone asks me my name, I give Foxy's name, and it feels solid and safe. If I invent a name, I feel guilty; but if I give Foxy's name, everything seems okay. Anyway he doesn't often use his real name, he prefers to be called "Foxy," to be cute, so why shouldn't I borrow his name?

Last week when I filled out the registration form for the blood test at the clinic in Chang'an West Road, my hands kept shaking, and I didn't write my real name, phone number, address, or ID card number: I'm not that stupid—if I really was infected, where would that leave me? I wrote Foxy's name, of course, but I just made up the rest of the information. I didn't want to get Foxy in trouble, I only wanted to borrow his name. White lilies gave off a dark, foresty scent in the dim surgery as the nurse sucked a tube of red-black blood from my arm. Her voice was carefully relaxed when she asked me my name and phone number. I felt my face fall, because I'd totally forgotten what I'd just written on the registration card, only remembering that I'd given Foxy's name. I had to invent a whole new set of personal details. The nurse's old face broke into a weird smile. She must have known I was lying. But she would have heard many lies there; what was one more?

"What were you doing in Taipei?"

One Stripe wanted to get a bit more out of "Li–Zi–qiang." "Li–Zi–qiang" hadn't said nearly enough. One Stripe hadn't found anything amiss in his accent yet, but he still couldn't be sure he wasn't an illegal immigrant. He was waiting for the other to reveal his true colors.

"I went to Taipei to see my friend... to dye my hair."

If I hadn't gone to see Foxy today, I'd have died and rotted away at home by now. A week after they take the blood, you can call the clinic to get the test result, positive or negative. Today is the sixth day, tomorrow I can call and get the result. In the days right after I'd given the blood, I felt normal, still as lively as ever. But on the fifth day I started to have trouble sleeping, got stomach pains, and was shivering in the heat of the day. All right, I admit it: I'm scared of dying. At the start I thought I didn't care what the result was, either way, but it turns out I care terribly. If I'd stayed home all day today, who knows what stupid thing I might have done.

I made myself go and see Foxy, but I didn't dare tell him about the blood test or the release of the result tomorrow. But Foxy could see the worry written on my face, so he suggested dyeing my hair to make me feel better. His fingers rubbed back and forth on my scalp; now and then his chest pressed into my back. My head was bent low into the white ceramic hand-basin, and I watched the bright red bubbles of dye flowing down past my ears. It was as though Foxy was eating the red flesh of a watermelon over the basin. He took a towel and wrapped it around my head; sorry I've wrecked your T-shirt. I said it doesn't matter; but he still gave me his own T-shirt to change into.

When I took off my T-shirt, Foxy couldn't stop himself, and I didn't say no. His single bed wasn't large—lucky him and me are both so skinny.

Some people might think it's really strange—shouldn't I be afraid of dying? So why did I still do it? But if I didn't do it, I'd only be more tormented; the frustration in my loins needed release. Afterward, we were so tired we dozed off and almost missed Foxy's evening shift. I rushed him to work on my scooter, and the moment he stepped into the salon he was running busily back and forth while I sat to one side and watched. Human silhouettes moved here and there, the air was thick with strong perfumes. Amid the smell of the cosmetics I began to feel a sense of calm, and stopped being afraid. If the test result was okay, I could come here and be an apprentice hair-washer too, to give myself something to do, and to be near Foxy, so that I wouldn't think any more stupid thoughts. But, if the test result came back and it wasn't good... Foxy finished his shift at midnight, and I asked him to come with me to buy sleeping pills. I said there's no way I'll sleep tonight, my eyes will stay wide open until dawn. Of course I didn't say, that's because I'm waiting to make a phone call on the morning of the seventh day... Foxy turned red and asked me, is it because of what happened this afternoon? I'm sorry. I said, Foxy, I'm the one who should be saying sorry...

"What are you going to Yungho for in the middle of the night?"

"I'm going home to sleep... I live in Yungho."

I want to go home and have a good sleep, and when it's morning, I want to call the clinic calmly and steadily, without shaking, and the old lady nurse will ask for my file number: I'll read out the figures, and then she'll tell me if I have it, or if I don't. Right now I want to go home and lie on my bed as still as a mummy, waiting for each hour to pass me by. I might not sleep at all, I might spend the whole night with my head in the toilet throwing up. Foxy patted my shoulder; you still feel bad, even after dyeing your hair? Do you want to stay at my place for the night? Or should I come to your place? I shook my head, even though I knew that it'd be better to have someone there to talk to. But if I wasn't careful, I might tell Foxy the secret about the blood test. I'll just wait and see—if I'm OK, I'll tell him then. Tonight I just want to go home by myself and sleep...

One Stripe hadn't discovered any clues, he was losing his patience.

"I ask you a question, and all you do is stammer and stutter, start and stop. Why don't you tell the truth? Why can't you talk clearly? I don't need this crap. How's this: You stay here and you wait. Later you come with me back to the station for a chat; leave your details, and then I'll let you go."

"Why? I haven't done anything wrong... I don't want to go to the police station... I want to go home..."

I want to go home and wait for tomorrow morning, then make the call. I don't want to wait alone at the police station till dawn. You'll find out about my blood test. You'll record it on my file. You'll know who I am.

"Li–Zi–qiang. I have no way of knowing if you are implicated in a case. I don't know whether what you've told me is true or false—why should I believe you? On top of that you have no ID. Maybe you're not called Li Ziqiang at all. Maybe you don't live in Yungho. Maybe you're not even Taiwanese. Maybe you're really a female transvestite. If I haven't seen any ID, how do you expect me to let you go?"

The boy gave in. One Stripe picked up his flashlight. Wordlessly, the boy stood to one side, deeply immersed in a feeling of guilt like formaldehyde, sinking him beyond salvation. One Stripe didn't take much notice of him as he prepared to wave down another vehicle. The more vehicles he stopped, the more details he took, the more names he noted, the better his record, then the less pointlessly squandered seemed the hours of his youth spent on this bridge. One Stripe waved his hand, and a rider obediently stopped his scooter, removed his helmet, and produced identification.

Unexpectedly, the long-haired boy, who had been standing in detention off to one side, mounted the scooter. The key hadn't been taken out; it was still in the ignition. All he had to do was turn it and surge forward and he could shake off the policeman and get to Yungho. Hurriedly the boy started the scooter. All he had to do was be brave, risk forcing his way past, and everything would be fine.

Then, in the second before he was to make his escape, One Stripe's yell reached him, followed by a shot. The officer's reaction was lightning swift: It was as though he had long anticipated the boy's act of daring recklessness, and it took only one false move from the other to trigger his instant response.

"Don't run! Don't run!" His finger squeezed the trigger and a bullet lodged in the center of the boy's back. Together, scooter and boy fell to the ground, the boy's hair dropping like petals around him. A stream of blood sprayed up into One Stripe's face. The boy's blood leapt onto One Stripe's split lip, saturating the wound and seeping inside. One Stripe felt a sting and tasted salt but didn't reach up to wipe away the blood.

Just then a fierce glare flashed at the end of the bridge.

A scooter roared past in a fury of sound. The rider wore no helmet. In the dark his face seemed somehow familiar, but it was too late to stop him. For christ's  sake. Surely it wasn't one of those three, the Capricorn, the Virgo, or the Taurus...

One Stripe stood by the pool of the boy's blood, desperately hoping his eyes deceived him.

Don't ask me what part of his body I shot. I didn't see. And don't ask me who it was I shot. I'm not sure. Don't ask me who the guy was that I couldn't stop just now. I don't know any of it. All I know is that I'm exhausted; I'm only waiting to go back and face the solitude of a bowl of instant noodles. I'm only twenty-five, after all.

translated from the Chinese by Fran Martin

This is a slightly revised version of the translation that first appeared in Martin's (ed. and trans.) Angelwings: Contemporary Queer Fiction from Taiwan (University of Hawaii Press, 2003).

Copyright © 2003 by University of Hawaii Press. Used by permission of University of Hawaii Press.