Poor corpses, thinly sliced stones, tins of fire, cotton-like fur, slapped T-shirts, blow-up dolphins, echoing lament, fragile karst, indecent photos, Asia & the holiest river.
I didn’t grow up a river child; my father did. Around the same age that I began to learn how to ride a ten-speed bike, my father and my uncles and their friends were standing in a river with their pants rolled up, skipping rocks. They were river boys, he likes to say, and they grew up into mountain men. In college, they sneaked past anti-Communist guard posts by the pale gray of dawn to backpack into the mountain range that stretches down the heart of Taiwan.
I didn’t know any of this when I traveled all over Asia after college. It was my brother, not my father, who taught me how to skip rocks when I was ten, because my parents kept their pasts tucked away, sealed off, like the unopened cardboard boxes in our basements. We had just packed up our lives in Taipei and moved to Southern California, and my parents stayed in the air-conditioned hotel room while my brother and I stood with our toes soaking in a river. My brother walked me along its bank and told me to pick out a thinly sliced stone.
I would pull the blanket over my face and shut my eyes and hold my breath, just to prepare myself for drowning.
Why, I asked.
He replied, I’m going to show you some magic.
That first time I saw my brother skip a rock, I didn’t believe what he was doing. I thought it was an illusion, like the card games with which he had deceived me so often. I believed that I knew the trick this time: he threw the stone hard enough that it hit the bottom of the river and it bounced up by sheer force. But when I tried it, my stone dropped into the water with a plop—then it was quiet. My rock vanished.
My brother grinned. See? Magic. He tucked his tongue into the corner of his lips and chopped his arm through the air. You have to skim it on the surface, he said.
The path the stone carves out on the water, I noticed that afternoon, is unpredictable; it dances in a crooked, angular shape. You can never be entirely sure what path it will take; as soon as the stone falls, it becomes a shadow on your eyelids.
At dawn in northern India, the sun looked as if it was spilling blood over the majestic, polluted river. Running along the edge of the ancient city of Varanasi, the Ganges is Hinduism’s holiest river. Well-endowed Indians scatter the ashes of their loved ones, and the poor drop corpses of their families into the water—to be purified, they say, and cleansed of their sins before their reunion with Brahma. My friends and I, half-alive, the air stale and burned, swayed silently in a wooden raft, the oars softly splashing through a lemon-colored fog. In the distance, beside the bank, we could make out the dark contours of a slender, bare-chested man standing in the water, a toothbrush in his mouth. Farther down, a woman squatted on a ghat, part of her apron afloat on the river, shoving clothes into the water and scrubbing them against each other. In our lungs, we could still taste the smoke from the burning of bodies the afternoon before.
M y childhood seems fractured, sliced in half, before it crumbled into pieces. Even though we moved so many times, so unpredictably, illogically, zigzagging our way around the globe, that first move was the butcher knife: it divided my life into the before and the after. It made my existence an impossible narrative, and the only way I could try to understand it was to pretend that I remember almost nothing of my childhood in Taiwan.
Except, of course, for the only story that my parents still tell about that time: I was a swimming champion in the kindergarten competition. While the other boys and girls pedaled, half of their bodies above their inflated tubes, I swam. Like a frog, my mother said, beaming at the way I glided through water. That morning, I won a blow-up dolphin. I tumbled with it in our living room, used it as a pillow when I watched TV. I tried to ride it in the pool, but my brother always flipped me over, so I pinched my nose and stayed underwater until I ambushed him, tackling him as he tried to climb on. But when we moved to California, as with so many things, my mother deflated the dolphin and threw it away.
My friends and I, half-alive, the air stale and burned, swayed silently in a wooden raft, the oars softly splashing through a lemon-colored fog.
Nobody, I suppose, could’ve predicted that within two years of our living in the United States, I’d become scared of water. I stopped swimming. I forgot how to rip the water open with my arms. Instead, in our Spanish-style house that overlooked the Pacific, I would lie in bed thinking about tsunamis, about Atlantis and the thousands of screams muffled by gurgling water. I dreamed about the weightless tumble as my whole body flipped over and over in the powerful spin of the Pacific waves. I would pull the blanket over my face and shut my eyes and hold my breath, just to prepare myself for drowning. I would imagine water filling not only my lungs, but my stomach and my liver and my veins until my whole body became a puddle of water.
Of course, I didn’t tell my parents this. And when I cried the night my father told us we were moving again, to New Jersey, he tried to appease me by telling me that a river ran through the woods in our backyard.
It worked, for a while. I thought of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, of dipping my toes in its clear running water and reading a book on a polished rock, my chocolate Labrador lazing at my feet—how American of me. Yet, when we pulled into our new driveway and I ran through the woods, I couldn’t find it, the river my father promised. Because what my father had called a river was instead a creek, if you could even call it that, a single stream of water that dried up before the week was over.
We never talked about that river again. That was the way it was in New Jersey. Of course there were rivers—where we lived was peppered with lakes and rivers carved and left behind by the last ice sheet—but no one noticed them, hidden as they were, buried under the crisscrossing of roads and buildings of the tri-state metropolis. I had to leave and come home again before I noticed the signs for Whippany River and Den Brook hidden behind the bushes, behind the highways, too small, too concealed for drivers to take note. Our high school, too, was situated on a winding road called Millbrook Avenue. It wasn’t until much, much later that I found out that a creek, Mill Brook, indeed ran somewhat beside it, that every day the river had followed me to school, watched my growing up. For a moment, I could see Lenni Lenape children, centuries ago, walking along its banks, picking out sticks and skipping stones. But no one seemed to care.
Like most of the major rivers I have seen in Europe, the Tagus, which runs from Spain into Portugal, is opaque; it is thick with runoff and sewage, cloudy and muddy. The concrete blocks along its banks drift with mold, a film of cotton-like fur. Its smell is putrid. Sitting on its steps, I could barely see the bottom of the half-submerged Coca-Cola can as it made its way toward the Atlantic. At night, the labyrinthine alleyways of Alfama, centuries after sailors had headed out into the unknown, still echo with the lament, the wails, of a fado song: “My hair getting white, the Tagus is always young.”
Across the water, back when children did not know the existence of the Americas, London was a remote Roman fort that guarded the Empire from barbarians beyond the end of the world. But like the Assyrians and the Babylonians in the Tigris-Euphrates river system and the Egyptians around the Nile and the Harappan in the Indus Valley, London rose around the Thames. People drank from the river, used it to bathe and launder, and then dumped human and animal waste into its water. In 1858, in one of the hottest summers on record, centuries’ worth of sewage in the Thames began to ferment, spawning from its water a stench so foul that citizens of London were forced to stay indoors or flee the city. It was a historical event known as the Great Stink. It worried lawmakers that mass exoduses from cities all over the world were inevitable. Either rivers could no longer support us, or we no longer needed them.
It turned out, though, that humans would find a way to stay beside their water sources. Not only did modern sewage systems clean out city rivers so that citizens returned to their homes, but all over Europe, constructions of embankments and riverside parks began. We no longer swim in or drink from them. Instead, we sit in the manicured parks, watching, waiting—for what? I wasn’t sure.
I didn’t believe my mother when she told me, back when I was in high school, that she used to slaughter chickens. I’d scoffed, thinking what a weird sense of humor my mother had, when she walked down into the basement and within minutes drove away in her SUV to what she called “the farm.” I thought it was the same strange joke when, a few years later, I went back to Taiwan for a visit, and my father’s sisters laughed about the outhouse they used to run to in the middle of the night, that they had slept two or three to a mattress on the floor in the living room.
Please, I said in English, where was this farmhouse, on the skyscrapers?
In the hour before dusk in Laos, I remember, when the sky was turning shades of crimson, a cluster of women in embroidered robes walked down the bank of the Mekong River. Like us, the men plowing the farms glanced up; the boys chasing after a half-deflated soccer ball paused. The women placed their wooden baskets on the mud. They didn’t take off their robes; they walked straight into the water. They submerged themselves shoulder-high. One of them dunked her long black hair into the river; another one slowly slid the robe off her shoulder. My friend took a photograph. I thought it was indecent, but when she tugged my arm to leave, I took one too. I wanted to know what it was like—taking baths in the river.
One of our favorite games back when we lived in Taiwan was when my brother and I would submerge our heads underwater. We’d stare at each other through our goggles, giggling; my brother would count to three with his fingers, and we’d scream at each other, howling, forming words, and hearing nothing except a distorted flat hum.
Right before I graduated from college, my brother showcased a documentary for his thesis project at CalArts. His one-hour film flashed back and forth between our grandparents’ home in Taiwan and an island country in the South Pacific called Nauru.
At night, the labyrinthine alleyways of Alfama, centuries after sailors had headed out into the unknown, still echo with the lament, the wails, of a fado song: “My hair getting white, the Tagus is always young.”
According to my brother, Nauru remains one of the only nations to recognize Taiwan as an independent country. But its recognition has minimal effect on the world stage, for it is the fourth-smallest country in the world. My brother recorded fishing boats bobbing up and down in the ocean, the island’s scarcity of lights, its thatched huts and dirt roads. His film juxtaposed Nauru with images of my grandfather burning incense, my uncles throwing paper money into a tin of fire, and my grandmother cooking a whole chicken in the kitchen.
It was good, I told him. Awesome. But I thought his attempt to conflate Nauru and Taipei, while intriguing, was fictitious. It was a romantic, over-the-top portrayal, almost a lie, made for his American audience. The simple island life of Nauru could not be conflated with my grandparents’ artist-designed waterfall running into a stone-lined pond. My grandparents’ house had two big-screen televisions and heated Japanese toilets and custom-made stone baths. The Taipei I knew was a sprawling cosmopolitan city much like Shanghai and Singapore and New York, a sterile metropolis, dull and full of disappointment. Just like everywhere else, Taipei was 7-Eleven and Starbucks and McDonald’s.
There are probably many explanations as to why, after I started going abroad by myself, I kept leaving. Sometimes I conceived of my traveling as an escape, a rebellion against mainstream, career-hungry corporate America; sometimes I thought of it as an addiction, an illness—whatever it was that made a girl visit fifty countries in seven years.
You can say that my growing up, that zigzagging, stop-and-start, incoherent narrative of packing and unpacking and packing again, messed me up. You can also say—or at least this was how I sometimes explain it—that I was mesmerized by the stilted huts on the Mekong River and the graceful strides of a Guatemalan woman balancing a basket on her head. Passing by on rattling chicken buses, I could imagine whole stories unfolding, whole films rolling by. I could see myself taking a nap on the bare teak floors in Malaysia or twirling tortillas by an open flame in El Salvador.
For a long time, I tried to make my parents feel the thrill of what I was doing, why I traded the comforts of Western Europe and the US for the squalor and primal way of living in parts of Southeast Asia and Central America. I came home and I left, again and again, each time reminded of the sadness and disappointment of my own upbringing, the terrible lack of stories in suburban America, of any tales I could speak of beyond drinking in the Wendy’s parking lot and racing in Walmart’s shopping carts and playing basketball and the glitz and glamour of small-town athletics. I asked my parents to come on parts of my trips with me, to leave behind our one-acre home in New Jersey and to sleep on a mattress for a dollar a night and to flush a toilet with a bucket of water. I showed them pictures of slender, unsmiling boys in Burmese villages. I told them about my trip to China when I ventured into an ancient trading post along the Tea and Horse Road and fell asleep to echoes of cluck-cluck-cluck centuries old.
I told my parents, We need to understand how other people live in this world.
My parents would only smile and say in Chinese, Good for you.
W hen our Salvadoran friend dove off of the waterfall and into the river, his bronze body an art form as he twirled and twirled in the water, I forced myself to swim again. Many times, I could have died.
In Guatemala, my inflated rubber tube flipped over and I went splashing into the river, my legs kicking, flailing. The current almost ripped me away until another traveler grabbed my wrist. I wondered for months afterwards what it would have been like to be swallowed by the muddy water, to float down the river and into the ocean like another broken-off branch, another Coca-Cola can.
On the day I stumbled upon an unnamed village on the outskirts of Yangshuo in the southern part of China, I walked over two timber planks that bridged a creek. I barely noticed a woman in a straw hat, ankle-deep in the soft current with a basket of clothes, until I heard the pop-pop-pop of her slapping T-shirts against the water. I lowered my head, and I continued to walk down the dirt path tucked between rice fields.
As soon as I reached the bank of the Dragon River, I threw my Deuter backpack on the ground. I sat on an abandoned post of scattered cement blocks and waited for the sun to set over fragile karst peaks. I watched the turquoise water as it curled around polished rocks. Just as the sky began to turn pale shades of red, a slender man with mud-encrusted rain boots and the oily nose of my grandfather walked toward me. He pushed a wooden raft into the river, and as he drifted away, he began untangling the fishing nets and dumping them into the water. As I cuddled my North Face long-sleeve close to my body, the fisherman vanished soundlessly beyond the bend.
M any times, I traveled to Asia by way of Taiwan. Once, in my grandparents’ high-rise apartment in Taipei, my mother grabbed my arm and yanked me from the couch. It was after my father had mentioned that he was going to China on business and my grandfather, withered and full of bones, had handed him a hongbao, a red-pocket. My grandmother had started yelling, her eyes enlarged by her red-rimmed glasses, and then everyone was shouting and spitting, a furious cacophony of Mandarin and Taiwanese I did not understand.
I never saw where the hongbao went—whether my father had pocketed it or left it on the living-room table. I did not know what happened. I do remember the moment, though, paused as it seemed, when I stood in that narrow hallway piled high with shoes, waiting for the elevator: my grandmother standing in the doorway, my grandfather too weak to see us out, all of us silent, watching, waiting, until the elevator beeped and took us away.
It wasn’t until much, much later that I found out that a creek, Mill Brook, indeed ran somewhat beside it, that every day the river had followed me to school, watched my growing up.
Later that night, I waited for my mother to retire to bed, quiet, solemn, before I asked my father, How much money was in the hongbao? I pretended that I was tapping at the keys on my computer, but typing nothing.
My father was sitting in a cushioned rocking chair in the living room, his legs crossed, a magazine in his hands. For a while, it seemed as if he had not heard me. The silence stretched, distorted. I could hear the muffled hum of cars on the freeway below us. It was the constant static of my childhood. The text cursor on my computer blinked and blinked.
Finally, without lifting his eyes, my father said, Not much. He licked his finger and flipped a page.
My friend took a photograph. I thought it was indecent, but when she tugged my arm to leave, I took one too.
Oh, I replied.
Just as I was about to push the chair back and walk to the bedroom, my father said in Chinese, He thinks I can find her.
I nodded as if I knew what he meant, and I went to bed.
Looking back, it is easy to say that I knew that stories in my family would eventually reveal themselves, but, I think, I might have been afraid to ask. My father and mother were never ones to tell stories of their pasts.
I am not sure when I pieced it all together, but I found out later that my mother’s father had served as a soldier in the Nationalist Party in China and, along with two million of his comrades, fled to Taiwan in exile, leaving a wife and daughter behind.
I started speculating that my obsession with Asia was inspired in part by wanting to find the wife and daughter my grandfather had left during the war. In finding them, in retracing his steps, I would also find answers to questions I didn’t yet know how to ask. People offered me fellowships, gave me jobs, patted me on my back and sent me on my way. But that was bullshit and I knew it. It was just some narrative tacked on, a justification of sorts for the life I chose to live out of a backpack.
In a forest in Honduras, my friend and I sat on sunbaked rocks and watched boys flip themselves off of boulders into El Rio Cangrejal. They swung from a tire roped to a tree and yelped in midair and cannonballed into the water. My friend and I laughed, full of envy at their daring. After the boys waved to us, saying, Adios, bonitas, we jumped off of the boulder too, into the water, gurgling as bubbles and foam rose all around us, brushing against our skin. The water curled around us like silk. I swallowed a gulp of water. It tasted like coconut.
I was in the High Tatras, in Slovakia two summers ago, and I was sitting on a rock polished by the icy water that ran through it. After a few minutes, I could no longer hear the steps of hikers yards away along the gravel paths behind the bushes; instead, the crunch-slap-crunch of the mountain river reminded me of my grandmother.
Somehow, halfway across the world, I realized that the water sounded like my grandmother slapping T-shirts against a serrated laundry board while I was in the next room, not yet six or seven years old, rolling on the tiled floor with my aunt’s three dogs. Sometimes I helped her clip the clothes on the clotheslines outside our windows, drip-drip-dripping onto the alleyway ground, hanging there, exposed, public, like the laundry in the postcards I’d bought in Shanghai and Portugal of clotheslines zigzagging across narrow roads.
The Taipei I knew was a sprawling cosmopolitan city much like Shanghai and Singapore and New York, a sterile metropolis, dull and full of disappointment.
I’d forgotten that sound, that thwack, because my grandmother now owns a washing machine. But back when I was a child I had watched her twist clothes in the sink in that old apartment, her fingers tough like the uncles in Singapore’s hawker centers kneading dough.
I thought again of the woman in Yangshuo, knee deep in a bending creek. I wondered if my grandmother had ever stood knee-deep in a river, popping T-shirts against the rocks.
A while ago on a visit, my grandmother showed me an album filled with black-and-white photographs yellowed from age, their edges frayed and wrinkled. In one of those photographs were three boys, unsmiling, stern, the way so many of my own photographs of rural Asian kids turned out. Behind them was a wooden shack with a thatched roof, fenced in by crumbling wooden posts. The children were standing on a dirt road, a film of dust on their skin.
My aunt hovered over my shoulder and asked, Do you know which one is your father?
No, I replied.
My grandmother stood up then, laughing. She went to the kitchen, and as she placed our plates into the dishwasher, she kept laughing.
Passing by on rattling chicken buses, I could imagine whole stories unfolding, whole films rolling by.
Her whole house still smelled like herbs and garlic and chicken and bok choy.
My aunt placed her forefinger on a dark-skinned skeletal boy. He looked familiar, I thought, but soon I realized that it was not because he resembled my father, but because he looked like the chocolate-colored boys I saw splashing in Indonesia and the wide-eyed boys in the village in Burma. He had that same calm expression, the same farmer-toned skin, the same buzz haircut and the secondhand clothing and the bones the bones the bones.
Recently, I followed my brother through the streets of Taipei. Neither of us spoke. It was too loud, too crowded. The air was too choked by exhaust and heat, cars and trucks racing and crashing through each other on the glossy tar. I slammed my knee into parked mopeds on the sidewalk, got struck by shopping bags. Then we turned the corner, and another. I didn’t recognize the city until the two of us were standing at the corner of two major avenues, waiting for the light.
The building across the street was an ugly one—its exterior ran with exhaust—but it was one of the few things I remembered in Taiwan because it was a fixture of my childhood. My uncle and my aunt had lived on the tenth floor, and my aunt had started her own publishing company on the second. When I was young, I often sat in the security guard’s booth while my grandfather went to the bank or my aunt picked up manuscripts. Sometimes, if I begged hard enough, my aunt would give me money to go to the air-conditioned KFC next door.
When I slid my camera out of my pocket, my brother narrowed his eyes. What are you doing? You’re not a tourist here—you know that, right? He snickered.
Just as the sky began to turn pale shades of red, a slender man with mud-encrusted rain boots and the oily nose of my grandfather walked toward me.
I didn’t want to admit to him that I’d finally figured out, uncovered, some secret that had not exactly been a secret: I was standing on that same dirt road in the photograph, staring at the ghost of the farmhouse my father and uncles and aunts had grown up in, bulldozed and replaced, as Taiwan modernized, by a bland, colorless high-rise.
A car honked. Then another. We started to cross the street, carried along by the crowd. Before I got swept away, though, I snapped a picture of that corner. I didn’t know how to explain it to him: that feeling that I just had to record the moment.
W herever we were, in California or in New Jersey, my mother would stand behind me while I was chopping bok choy or trimming the ends of mung bean sprouts. She would reach over and grab my hand, spread my fingers and study them. Even now, I can feel the roughness of her palms, the map of her calluses and scars and bumps, the tickling pain of her tough skin scraping against my hand.
She would say to my father in Chinese: Her hand is so smooth.
My father would glance up first from his computer, then his BlackBerry, then his iPhone. He would grin. But he never said a thing.
In finding them, in retracing his steps, I would also find answers to questions I didn’t yet know how to ask.
Then my mother would say to me, You haven’t worked a day in your life.
I would always grip the knife harder and harder and keep chopping away, with a renewed dramatic flair. I never knew what to say. I thought that perhaps I could tell her about the blisters on my feet, rubbed raw from basketball shoes squeaking against wooden floors. Sometimes I felt like I should apologize. Others, I thought she expected me to say thank you.
Maybe one of these days, I will.
I didn’t know until this past year, when my father took me on a walk, that Taipei has a river. Maybe I did know that, once, but I’d certainly forgotten it. In fact, the Taipei Basin has three major rivers. The Ketagalan tribe built stilted huts along the waters, dug mollusks on the beach, and fished and hunted until the Chinese arrived. The Chinese came in through Danshui River, forced the aboriginals into the mountain, and started to build a city that straddled the river. Then, along the same route, the Portuguese came too, then the Dutch.
My father and I walked on a paved path, a manicured bank. It came to an end when the two of us stood under a crisscrossing of highways. The metals above me trembled, the irons cranking, whining, popping. I shivered with a sense of smallness and insignificance, glancing up only seconds at a time at the skyscrapers that rose along the river’s banks. And I thought the whole thing would come down on me right then and there.
It didn’t. Instead, my father and I stared for a quick minute or so at the river, running with the same filth and mud as city rivers all over the world. He had told me, only a couple of days before, that when he’d skipped school as a kid, he’d go to the mountains and play by the river and catch shrimp for Grandma for dinner.
Even now, I can feel the roughness of her palms, the map of her calluses and scars and bumps, the tickling pain of her tough skin scraping against my hand.
Really? I’d asked him. We have shrimp in those rivers?
He’d given me a chuckle; that was all, a chuckle.
But I think I’ve figured out how to understand him. There by that riverbank that reeked of rotten vegetable and animal waste, under the frantic pace of modernization, I knew that the creek up in the mountains, the one where he and his brothers and his friends had rolled up their pants and tried to catch shrimp, the one that had embodied the Taipei my father knew, had dried up. Just like the river he’d once promised me, it was already gone.
Bea Chang is a writer, feminist and traveler who was born in Taiwan, raised in California and New Jersey, and has traveled to sixty-eight countries. She received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Washington, and her short stories and essays have appeared in the Awesome Sports Project, Broad Street Magazine, Memoir, Toasted Cheese Online Literary Journal and Colere: A Journal of Cultural Exploration. Her essays have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and named a Notable Mention in Best American Essays (2017) and Best American Sports Writing (2018). She is the 2020 recipient of Anne G. Locascio Scholarship at the Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference. Her website is beachang.com.
“The River My Father Promised” was first published in Broad Street Magazine (2016). It was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and it was selected as a Notable Mention in the Best American Essay series (2017). It was a finalist for Nowhere’s Fall 2020 Travel Writing Prize.
Lead image: Gláuber Sampaio