In the April of 1895, the last imperial dynasty of China, the Qing Dynasty, lost the First Sino-Japanese War to Japan. China gave Taiwan to Japan as part of their losses, and the Japanese would land in the island for their occupation on May 29, 1895. While Taiwan’s resistance slowed the advance towards the capital, Tainan, Japan eventually reached there, starting its five-decade rule over Taiwan.
And the shame was on the other side.
My clearest memory of my grandfather is of him singing an old Japanese song, his voice clear in the orange haze of the sunset as we overlooked rice fields, small stalks swaying in the mirror surfaces of the calm water.
I was four- or five-years-old, and he had taken me out into the fields with his own wooden cart, the water buffalo pulling us with its slow strides, as if there were no more worries in the world. On the horizon was nothing but other rice fields, water reflecting dimming sunlight, as my grandfather sang a song in a language that was disappearing all over the island.
He had walked across Taiwan in order to join the Japanese army in World War II, and watched his nation give up, as Emperor Hirohito surrendered to the Allies.
When I was a child, he was a giant to me, unapproachable because we couldn’t communicate.
In the end, I will always remember him singing songs, echoing a sentiment of loneliness.
He was part of the last generation of Taiwanese who spoke Japanese.
- Come with me
Godzilla first appeared in 1954, when the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was still fresh in Japanese minds. Godzilla was the embodiment of nuclear weapons, of the horror inflicted upon the island and its people during World War II.
To some, Godzilla was the embodiment of America itself.
I was a child when I first saw Godzilla, and I thought about how sad he sounded, his roar a sentiment of loneliness that wasn’t recognized, a cry searching for someone who would understand him. No one sympathized with him for being the only living member of his species, no one would feel his isolation, nor what it was to not be understood by anyone else in this world.
Not many would bear the pressure.
As he rampaged through the streets of Tokyo, I always felt that he was just reaching out to the natives of the island, even when he was attacked and misunderstood by these creatures who feared him, who feared his appearance, who screamed in horror at his attempts to communicate.
As he lay dying, I wondered if he ever regretted attempting to communicate with the ones who killed him. As he lay dead, I wondered if he ever regretted believing that he would be understood.
- Deeper underground
On October 25, 1945, Japan surrendered Taiwan, placing it under the control of the Chinese Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang, led by the Government of the Republic of China. The Kuomintang would lose the Chinese Civil War to the Communist Party of China, retreating to Taiwan completely after being kicked out of China.
My parents were part of the first generation of Taiwanese who were forced to learn Mandarin as their second language, a language that would never be learned or understood by their own parents.
They grew up during the early transitions into Chinese government, and saw how the new government pulled the country down into depression.
My dad remembers when children were taken off the streets, kidnapped into sweat shops run by the new government. My mom remembers rumors of kids disappearing from class, rumors that they were eaten out of hunger and desperation.
Fear marked the new government’s early stages, seeding resentment against the “mainlanders” who had been exiled from their own country and into ours, who were forced upon us by a world war we never fought.
In May 19, 1949, the Kuomintang declared martial law. Around 140,000 Taiwanese would be imprisoned for the crime of being either anti-Kuomintang or pro-Communist.
Around 3,000 to 4,000 of these people would be executed.
This period was known as the “White Terror.” It lasted thirty-eight years and fifty-seven days, all the way until it was finally lifted on July 15, 1987.
But now, it’s too late, there’s no escape from what they have done.
The White Terror is one of the longest periods of martial law ever placed on a nation, second only to Syria’s half-century martial law, which lasted from 1963 to 2011.
When I was a child, we were forbidden to speak Taiwanese, our own native language, in public places. My parents hushed me when a word of Taiwanese escaped my lips on the streets, reprimanding me for not speaking properly when we were outside of our home.
They taught me Mandarin, and Mandarin only, because that was the language that was used in schools and universities, governments and hospitals, by journalists and job makers.
I was unable to speak my own people’s language well. I was forever proficient in foreign languages, in the speech and worlds of those from other lands.
- No shelter
In 2011, there were over 14,098 McDonald’s; 7,231 Burger Kings; 7,595 Pizza Huts; 10,787 Starbucks; and 4,793 Kentucky Fried Chickens in the world.
In Taiwan alone, there are over 4,790 7-Elevens, one store per every 8.5 km².
The front line is everywhere, there be no shelter here.
While walking the crowded streets of Taiwan, my mom leaned over and said, “I need some real coffee,” to which I replied “Starbucks?” This was despite being surrounded by local coffee shops and street vendors, all of them offering local coffee for less than a tenth of the price of a venti mocha at Starbucks.
Into your pockets, son, they got you thinking that, what you need is what they selling, made you think that buying is rebelling.
Staying in my grandparents’ rural village, my cousins Wilber and Tommy spent most of their time in the local 7-Eleven, hiding inside the air-conditioned sterile space of glass and metal. Wi-Fi connected them to a world they understood and knew. Both of them were born in the United States, and neither of them knew the language their ancestors spoke. The streets and people outside were completely foreign to them. This 7-Eleven was their sanctuary, surrounded by products in a language they understood, shipped from miles and miles across sea, standing out awkwardly amongst the local goods.
While working at the Medical Intensive Care Unit, I saw a man pull off his oxygen mask just so that he could whisper words to me.
His heart had stopped and been revived more than most people could suffer, and the only thing that kept him from dying now was this oxygen mask pumping air into him. Yet, even then, he continued to pull it off, risking looking Death in the face again just so that he could whisper words to whoever was in the room, reach out weakly to whoever would listen.
I wondered how desperate this man was to communicate, that he would rather go without air than not be able to whisper his thoughts again, risking death and suffocation to be heard once more.
Coming up for air.
The housekeeper who used to work in this unit, Willie, used to tell me about times when he was pulling trash at night and said hello to those who were awake. He told me about speaking to them about their stay, comforting them that it was all going to be alright, that they would be out of there soon.
In some nights, he would find out that the patients he spoke to had died, that he was the last person to speak to them before they passed on.
He asked me how he could speak to the relatives of those who were deceased, how to pass along the last messages of those who had moved on.
He asked me how he could ever make justice of those last spoken words.
- Running knees
Japan’s intention for Taiwan was to turn it into the “model colony,” due to the fact that the island was Japan’s first colony overseas. They would construct dams and ports, banks and credit unions, highways and trains, roads and sewage system, public clinics and schools.
When a Chinese general visited Taiwan while my dad was in the navy, he exclaimed in surprise when he saw the dams and ports left behind by the Japanese. He said that “no Chinese could have ever built anything like this,” to which my dad replied, “true,” saying under his breath, “because they were Japanese.”
Japan made elementary school attendance mandatory, teaching Japanese to kids, attempting to bridge the communication gap between them. They banned opium and foot binding, considered archaic and unhealthy habits left behind by the Chinese.
By the time my Grandfather started growing up, the memories of scholars and resistance massacred at the beginning of the Japanese era would fade, replaced by progression and modernization of a generation who did not experience the horrors of the beginning.
Blood flows from raining eyes.
- Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade
It is in the air. The floats are floating in it.
Macy’s department store started their annual tradition in 1924. Macy’s is only the second oldest Thanksgiving Day parade in the United States, four years younger than Philadelphia’s ABC Dunkin’ Donuts Thanksgiving Day Parade. It features floats, professional bands, and large balloons that replaced live animals in 1927.
Bend like giants filled with rum.
During my childhood, the street in front of a temple would be blocked off on that deity’s birthday. The community celebrated with large pots of vegetable ramen to share, puppet shows and cotton candy, Chinese Opera and traditional songs. A large screen canvas displayed movies of horror, action and comedy.
When I visited Tainan’s temple in 2010, all of that was gone.
The streets were bare, and only a small stage with puppet shows stood in front of the temple stairs. One or two elders occupied folding chairs set up in rows, sitting there out of loneliness and boredom.
When I spoke to the sole cart vendor at the event, he told me that nobody came to participate in these celebrations anymore, that kids and adults preferred watching television in the comfort of their own homes. They preferred melodramas of lives they wished they lived and Western movies about lands they had never seen.
Staring at the small puppet show and no customers, even the vendor looked bored and lonely, his eyes half-closed in the cold winter night. I felt a dull pain inside as I turned to leave, as if I was watching something die.
How I could ever make justice of those last moments?
- Walk the sky
Trading on the fears of nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Godzilla’s creators brought him to life.
Just like the United States itself, Godzilla started out as a terrifying enemy who came upon the island and stomped everything, leaving fear in his wake. Japan had never been occupied by a foreign nation before, and the United States occupation represented a low point in national pride.
General Douglas MacArthur arrived in Tokyo on August 30, 1945, and Japan wouldn’t be an independent nation again until April 28, 1952, when the San Francisco Peace Treaty came into full effect.
The San Francisco Peace Treaty also declared that all residents of Taiwan belonged to the Republic of China.
Wings are on kryptonite.
On December 20, 1964, Godzilla appeared as a strong ally to Japan and defended the island against invaders, starting with the film “Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster.” On January 19, 1960, the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan stated that the continued presence of U.S. military forces in Japan was necessary, that both countries needed to join together in order to fight a common danger, should any invaders attack Japan.
In 1956, footage from the original Godzilla film was reworked and supplemented with new scenes. It was released in the U.S. under the title, “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!”
When my grandfather died, my parents asked me to fly back to Taiwan for his funeral.
In his generation, males were still the only gender that mattered, and concern that my cousins Wilber and Tommy wouldn’t be able to make it made it my responsibility to represent my generation as the oldest descendant.
My dad told me how happy my grandfather was when I was born, since I was the first male out of all his grandkids to be born in Taiwan. He would eventually write out the components of my Chinese name, deciding on the characters that would tie to my fate and future, according to my mother’s spiritual beliefs.
On the flight there, I couldn’t sleep.
Even though I like the way it feels to be a person in the sky.
I didn’t remember my grandfather well.
Gravity can pull me from this height. One day, we’ll come crashing down. What will I do?
Never had a chance to say goodbye.
- Brain Stew
I’m having trouble trying to sleep, I’m counting sheep, but running out. As time ticks by, still I try, no rest for cross-tops in my mind.
On my own, here we go.
The time difference in Taiwan made it hard to sleep the first few nights. I opened my eyes to the dark of the pre-sunrise day and stared at my watch, thinking about breakfast at the local open market.
My cousins had already left for 7-Eleven, and I stepped outside to see the tent made for my grandfather’s funeral, the flower bouquets and banners hung ready for it. His body lay in wait inside a heavy wooden coffin to be buried at the family site that day.
I prayed in the room with his coffin, whispered words that wished for his safe journey in the afterlife.
I felt as close talking to him like this as I did when he was still alive.
On my own, here we go.
The last time I had seen him was three years before the funeral when I came back to visit Taiwan. I had been absent for over seventeen years. Relatives were surprised at the stranger who I had grown up to be, and they appeared to me as faces I had never met.
On the night my mom and I slept at my grandfather’s place, neighbors and old friends of my grandfather sat on folding chairs around the yard, talking about the times when they were young and the present that they didn’t want to participate in. I didn’t speak Taiwanese well enough to join the conversation, so I just listened and wondered if their stories would be lost, if whatever they did in their lives would just fade away, like the stories of those who had lived and died in the past, stories never written, never recorded or known.
I left after an hour or so to walk around the quiet streets of the village, roads that died as soon as the sunlight left. I found an old street vendor outside the closed marketplace; he was frying fish cakes and duck blood rice patties. I struggled to greet him and say in Taiwanese that I wanted to buy something. He was of an older generation, maybe a few years older than my dad, and as his eyes narrowed when I started to speak in Mandarin, I became nervous.
His face changed, an aura of hostility rose as his entire stance stiffened, his veins bulging.
I panicked, stuttered as I tried speaking in Taiwanese again. I wanted to say, “I’m one of you.” I wanted to say, “I was born Taiwanese.”
I wanted to say, “My ancestors were killed and oppressed by the Chinese, too.”
But I couldn’t. I just stood there staring at him in awkward silence, feeling as if this, too, was my fault, that this too was all my doing, and that I deserved whatever punishment that came for not learning my own people’s voice.
On March 8, 1996, China fired live missiles within 25 to 35 miles of the southern ports of Taiwan in Kaohsiung and Keelung. They meant to threaten the Taiwanese electorate, to warn them that if they voted for current president Lee Teng-Hui, it would mean war.
Lee Teng-Hui had been preaching the independence of Taiwan as a nation, and China saw those attempts as acts to “split China.” He was branded a traitor.
When I was in college, the international students from Taiwan spoke feverishly in favor of our nation becoming independent. At home, my dad and uncle spoke about China’s attempt to scare Taiwan away from our ultimate fate. During dinner, a Chinese friend of mine said that Taiwan shouldn’t even bother, that compared to China, we were just a small insignificant state that couldn’t do anything on our own.
Dream of content, a pain filtered farm.
Maybe because I only lived in my native country the first eight years of my life, I didn’t feel connected to these issues at all, listening and nodding out of curiosity rather than with involvement.
After the Kuomintang lost power in 1991, people were allowed to speak Taiwanese again, and maybe to show their support for Taiwan’s independence, natives would speak nothing but Taiwanese.
The island’s native language returned to television and movies, public places and schools.
Lee Teng-Hui would later say that it was unnecessary to pursue Taiwan’s independence because he saw Taiwan as an independent state already. To declare independence would imply that we once saw ourselves as part of China.
China declared that Taiwan has “always” been a part of China, and that independence for the island was only wanted by a small group of people. The Chinese government stated that the people of Taiwan do not have the right to determine their own fate by declaring independence, and that such actions might result in retaliation or invasion from Beijing.
In 2010, China threatened to use force if Taiwan opted for independence again, successfully testing a missile-defense system aimed at scaring away the U.S. from defending Taiwan.
Dreams are bad, when all they do is leave the truth behind.
- Out there
When the marching band arrived with the pretty girls in fishnets and high heels, my cousins pointed at them and laughed at how weird it was, about how we might eventually end up seeing strippers at the funeral.
The morning sun had come, and breakfast had already been served by the feast makers to those attending the funeral.
Pig heads would be the food that celebrated my grandfather’s end.
My grandmother requested a traditional funeral, with a large feast prepared for friends and neighbors, celebrating my grandfather’s journey into the underworld. Marching bands and pretty girls in high heels were hired for the coffin’s trip around town, touring my grandfather’s last visit through the streets he once walked, before finally being buried at our family’s grave site.
My cousin Wilber was the oldest male of our generation, so the funeral rites of the funeral that required the eldest male fell to him. Yet he didn’t speak Taiwanese, and he didn’t understand anything that the priest told him to do.
In the end, they took me in front of the priest, since I was the oldest of our generation that understood our native tongue.
Wilber’s dad told him to just follow what I did, and asked me to pull Wilber through the ritual. We bowed and prayed and drank ash water as the priest directed, and in the end, although I was meant to be only a model for Wilber to mimic, I felt closer to the rituals than Wilber did, feeling as if I had connected somehow with my grandfather after death, as if everything was alright again.
The carriers took his coffin through the streets, following the commotion and large drums of the marching band. I wondered then if my grandfather was ever disappointed in us, disappointed that we couldn’t even speak the language that our parents spoke, or in my case, the language of the country I was born in.
At the grave site, my dad showed me the tombstones and said who they belonged to, their names and relations as foreign as a stranger on the street. They set the coffin down, the priest blessing my Grandfather’s journey into the underworld, us standing around pouring dirt onto his coffin.
I will never see him again.
Come on down.
When I was in Bolivia, a market merchant’s eyes almost popped out when she heard me speak, surprised that someone with slit eyes was able to speak Spanish so well that I could pass for a native, for a person who was born there.
When I was in tenth grade, my English teacher didn’t believe that I didn’t grow up in the United States, and was surprised when I told her that I didn’t even know the language three years ago.
When I worked at the Hyatt, my Taiwanese co-workers would be surprised at how poorly I spoke Mandarin and Taiwanese for a native. While in college, my Asian friends would call me the “most un-Asian Asian” they had ever known.
You take two steps forward, smile and turn on the lights. Just like a scene from a movie that you feel that you own the rights.
During college, I took Japanese as my foreign language requirement, and after a few years, I would end up with a bachelor’s degree in it. I chose it with the hopes that if I could learn the secondary language my grandfather spoke, I would finally be able to speak to him, to communicate to that giant in a language he could understand.
The last time I saw him alive, he took me into his bedroom, and under his mattress, he took out 250 American dollars in bundled bills and neatly flattened stacks.
“This belongs to you,” he said in Taiwanese, stretching the money out to me.
I shook my head and said, “I don’t need it,” in broken Taiwanese. I tried to say that I had a job and I was doing well, that I could support myself and that he should use the money for his own pleasures.
“This is yours,” he said again, lifting the mattress up to show me the other bundles of dollar bills he had underneath. He went on to explain that he saved each bundle up for each grandson, and that he would personally give all of them their stacks as soon as he saw them face to face.
My mom just told me to take it, and I would do so with a feeling that I didn’t deserve it, that I wasn’t a good enough grandson to deserve this money from him.
My mom would tell me later that this was the only way my grandfather knew how to show his love. She would tell me that this was the only way he knew how to communicate how much he cared for us.
I would carry it all back to the United States, unspent.
- Opening titles
Godzilla’s roar was created by composer Akira Ifukube, who rubbed a resin-covered leather glove along the loosened strings of a double bass, slowing down the playback afterwards.
If Godzilla’s voice didn’t belong to him, made by some machine he had no control over, how did he ever communicate how lonely he felt? How he just wanted to feel known?
Children raised by uninvolved parents have difficulty forming attachments in life, due to the lack of emotional responsiveness and love from their caretakers. They are more likely to misbehave due to the lack of boundaries set at home, and often feel fear, anxiety, or stress due to lack of family support.
Maybe that’s why Godzilla stomped the city of Tokyo, because he didn’t know how else to get attention, because he didn’t know how else to say that he needed love.
- Looking for clues
When the funeral was over and the attendants were all gone, my uncle brought out a six-pack of beer and we all sat around the yard drinking on folding chairs.
While drinking, he spoke about how the current generation will forget about the horrors of China’s takeover, or about the fact that our Grandparents used to speak Japanese.
Godzilla pure motherfucking filler, get your eyes off the real killer.
While drinking, I spoke about how the current generation will forget about festivals and traditions, taken over by Western films and television melodramas, or about the fact that there used to be no cell phones or internet.
Memories erased and promise gone, trading your history for a VCR. Cinema, simulated life and trauma, birthright, culture, Americana. Chained to the dream they got you searching for, the thin line between entertainment and war.
Bury the past, rob us blind, and leave nothing behind.
How do we pass along the last messages of those who have moved on? How could we ever make justice of those last words that were spoken?
When I grow old, I wonder if I’ll end up singing songs in a language my grandkids won’t understand, roaring a sentiment of loneliness that they won’t recognize.
Lyrics to a forgotten soundtrack, based on a movie that nobody cared about, a remake of a giant who used to stand for something, who used to be feared for what he reminded people of.
Tom Lin is a writer in Columbus, Ohio. He’s the co-founder of Inkstone Creative Writing Workshop. He’s currently studying creative writing in The Ohio State University and pursuing a master’s degree in English Education. His short stories are published in Dali’s Love Child, 805 Literary and Arts Journal, and Pilcrow and Dagger. Follow him on Twitter at @tomlinprosa.