This story is by Allison Merrill and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
I don’t remember when I started to dream in both Chinese and English. I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night wondering where I am––Taiwan or America.
Taipei, Taiwan. 1992
Rainy winter night. Dark Taipei street. I was walking back to my university dorm when an American young man approached me on the sidewalk, telling me his name was Cameron and asking if I spoke English. He was in his early 20s and had an uncanny resemblance to Bruce Willis with full, brown hair.
My English wasn’t good, but I understood what he said. He needed help getting a taxi. I helped him. And he got my number.
Cameron and I met during his last semester as a foreign student learning Chinese in my university. I was a sophomore majoring in German. We sometimes met up at the school cafeteria where I tutored him Chinese.
One night after a tutoring session, we were walking back to my dorm together when I saw my best friend from high school, Ling, standing by the front door of the visitor’s lounge. I hadn’t seen her since our high school graduation. She’d traveled all the way from my hometown three hours away that night to give me a blue-covered journal.
“Happy birthday. Turning 20 in a week, you.” Ling said.
“Oh, you remember!” I cooed, holding the gift to my chest with one hand and hugging her with the other. “Thank you. It’s my favorite color, too.”
“I know. And how can I forget your birthday? You’re the only New Year baby I know.”
We chatted briefly before she had to hurry to catch the last train home. Cameron and I waved at Ling and watched as she dashed toward the bus stop.
“Six-hour train ride just to bring you a gift, huh?” he said. “You must be a special girl.”
I chuckled. Before I knew what to say to that, Cameron told me to wait in the visitor’s lounge. “Be right back.” He winked before disappearing into crowds of students.
I sat down at a corner table to write in my new journal. Minutes later, Cameron returned with a slice of birthday cake on a baby blue paper plate. He put it down on the table and started singing Happy Birthday in Chinese. I was speechless.
It only took about three seconds for everyone around us to form an impromptu choir and joined Cameron in a collective celebration for my big day. All I could do was burying my face in my hands in blissful embarrassment.
“Happy birthday!” Cameron beamed and gave me a hug. The crowd of strangers applauded and cheered. I was swooned by the exuberance, but mostly by Cameron’s and my first close physical contact. His broad, solid chest felt protective, and I loved the faint, masculine scent from under his shirt.
“Thank you, Cam.” I looked up at his face. “You make me feel special.”
Cameron was the first one in my life who celebrated my birthday with cake. At home, my birthday wasn’t any different than February 29. But more than that, in the Taiwanese culture where people idolized Caucasians, I felt certain every girl in the crowd would do anything to be me right now––to be noticed and cherished by a white young man.
Two weeks later Cameron went home. Suddenly I couldn’t leave my dorm room. I couldn’t bear to walk near the visitor’s lounge or the cafeteria and not see Cameron. I couldn’t sleep without our nightly phone call. And when I finally fell asleep, I didn’t want to wake up. I could see Cameron in my dreams.
I’d always done well in school, but that semester I flunked all my classes. Looking at my pathetic grades I almost didn’t know myself anymore. It was dreadful going home for Chinese New Year at semester’s end. When my father found out about my academic blunder, he threw my backpack out the front door and paced the living room with bulging veins on his flushed face, yelling, “Get outta here! Out! You’re a disgrace to the ancestors!”
But all I could hear amidst the domestic discord were Cameron’s words, “You must be a special girl.” Heaven knows all I ever wanted was to hear his voice again. To feel special.
Almost as if he could sense my yearning, Cameron started writing me letters––his confession of passion. We’d experienced mutual attraction for each other, and he’d planned to take me to his homeland Texas. He’d imagined a life with me, the same dream I had.
Without hesitation, I took out all my savings and eloped.
Beaumont, Texas. 1995
We had a simple wedding. No guests. No reception. No honeymoon. Despite my bad grades I was accepted into the same university Cameron was attending, and we went straight back to school after the wedding.
This was my happily-ever-after. I was the luckiest Taiwanese girl alive, to be able to immigrate to The Promised Land.
The Chinese say, “Marry a chicken, follow the chicken’s way. Marry a dog, follow the dog’s way.” I married Cameron and should, naturally, follow the American way. It was easy to adapt to Tex-Mex and country music. Not as much to the accent and slang. And most definitely not to Cameron’s pornography addiction, or to his football game nights with his girlfriends, or to his checking single female coworkers’ undies in the office file room, or to his constant, dehumanizing comparisons between me and all the American girls he knew. And I’d certainly never imagined that when I confronted him about those other women, he’d pick me up and throw me across the room like a football, yelling, “That’s what American husbands do, bitch! Deal with it or go back to the shithole you came from!”
After a year of rough married life, one afternoon I walked back to our apartment after classes and was shocked to find a pile of my clothes and books by the front door. Cameron had moved out all his belongings and the furniture, discontinued the utilities, and ended the apartment contract. No notes. No explanation. No reconciliation. But that didn’t frighten me until I discovered that he’d also taken all the money I’d brought with me from Taiwan, leaving me penniless.
The next day I received a restraining order from him.
I had no choice but to ask a neighbor for five dollars––enough for a Hardee’s burger that I kept in my backpack for a week. I filled my pockets with Hardee’s mini packs of ketchup and mayonnaise and sucked on those between my daily bite of the burger. After classes every day I roamed the streets, looking for forgotten coins in the payphone change slot and hoping to collect enough for another burger. A girl in my biology class let me crash in her apartment until I found help from a local Mormon bishop. When the bishop asked me what had happened, I stared blankly ahead.
Whatever happened to my happily-ever-after in The Promised Land? Great question.
“I dunno.” I mumbled. “I dunno how I ended up being––a beggar.”
Provo, Utah. 1997
A few months later I transferred to Brigham Young University. With respectful, polyglot, stone-sober single guys everywhere on campus, BYU was truly the promised land for bachelorettes. I met a young man––Hugh Grant’s doppelgänger––who treated me as a daughter of God. We married. Children graced our lives. Now, instead of being proud to be an American wife, I was humbled by the second chance. By God’s grace.
Our mutual friend told me Cameron remarried a woman from Thailand. Children filled their home. His homesick wife wanted to return to Bangkok, so Cameron gave up everything in America and moved his family there, where he didn’t know the language and didn’t have any friends.
One day, his wife left for a massage appointment and never went home. All the money in their joined account was gone. The next day Cameron was served divorce papers.
In the Middle
Cameron brought me from Taiwan to Texas. His wife took him from Texas to Thailand. And we both stayed where we were grafted in; both became foreigners in the land of our children.
Since our divorce, I’d only seen Cameron once. In my dream. In which Cameron and I were great friends. We were at the cafeteria in my university in Taiwan. I corrected his Chinese pronunciation and he taught me English idioms. We joked and laughed and visited over student lunch. At the end of the day we went back to our own home––I to Utah; he to Bangkok. I was blessed; he was not. And just before I woke from the dream, I thought I heard his voice.
“Listen. I––uh––I know I made your life in Texas a living hell, and I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”
But I don’t remember if he was speaking Chinese or English.