Excerpt: 'Taipei' by Tao Lin
Paul’s father was 28 and Paul’s mother was 24 when they alone (out of a combined fifteen to twenty-five siblings) left Taiwan for America. Paul was born in Virginia six years later, in 1983, when his brother was 7. Paul was 3 when the family moved to Apopka, a pastoral suburb near Orlando, Florida.
Paul cried the first day of preschool for around ten minutes after his mother, who was secretly watching and also crying, seemed to have left. It was their first time apart. Paul’s mother watched as the principal cajoled Paul into interacting with his classmates, among whom he was well liked and popular, if a bit shy and “disengaged, sometimes,” said one of the high school students who worked at the preschool, which was called the Discovery Center. Each day, after that, Paul cried less and transitioned more abruptly from crying to interacting with classmates, and by the middle of the second week he didn’t cry anymore. At home, where mostly only Mandarin was spoken, Paul was loud and either slug-like or, his mother would say in English, “hyperactive,” rarely walking to maneuver through the house, only crawling, rolling like a log, sprinting, hopping, or climbing across sofas, counters, tables, chairs, etc. in a game called “don’t touch the ground.” Whenever motionless and not asleep or sleepy, lying on carpet in sunlight, or in bed with eyes open, bristling with undirectionalized momentum, he would want to intensely sprint in all directions simultaneously, with one unit of striving, never stopping. He would blurrily anticipate this unimaginably worldward action, then burst off his bed to standing position, or make a loud noise and violently spasm, or jolt from the carpet into a sprint, flailing his arms, feeling always incompletely satisfied.
Paul’s first grade teacher recommended he be placed in the English-as-second-language program, widely viewed as for “impaired” students, but Paul’s mother kept him in the normal class. His second grade teacher recommended he be tested for the “gifted” program and he was admitted and began going every Friday to gifted, in which most of the twenty-five to thirty students, having begun in first grade, were already friends. Paul felt alone on Fridays, but not lonely or uncomfortable or anxious, only that he was in a new and challenging situation without assistance or consequence for failure—a feeling not unlike playing a difficult Nintendo game alone, with no instruction manual. Paul played chess one Friday with Barry, who suggested Paul’s second move. Barry knew more about chess, so was being helpful, Paul thought, and did as suggested for his third move also, then watched an extremely happy Barry dash through the rectangular classroom telling groups of classmates he’d beaten Paul in a four-move check-mate. Paul told three classmates Barry had “tricked him,” then returned to the floor and put the chess pieces away and, with a sensation of seeing a spider crawl out of view inside his room, felt himself reassimilating Barry into the world as a kind of robot-like presence he would always need to be careful around and would never comprehend. In third grade, one morning, Paul finished telling something to his friend Chris, who was strangely unresponsive for a few seconds, then with an exaggeratedly disgusted expression told Paul his breath smelled “horrible” and “brush your teeth,” then turned 180 degrees, in his seat, to talk to someone else. Paul mechanically committed to always brushing his teeth and adjusted his view of Chris to include him, with Barry and 90 to 95 percent of people he’d met, as separate and unknowable.