The life of Hsu Ming-chang (徐明彰) has dropped to a new low. He’s in Berlin, unable to appreciate its cultural riches, reeling from his divorce from a career woman for whom he had left Taiwan. His only source of income is freelancing for a Chinese-language publication. He speaks little German. Worse yet, his visa has expired, so he must make a trip to the waiting room of the Foreign Registration Office, where dreams are made and crushed with the same sterile detachment.
The Waiting Room (等候室), the Chinese-language debut novel of Tsou Yung-shan (鄒永珊), picks up at this juncture to follow Hsu as he navigates his visa troubles and the streets of Berlin.
Tsou, trained in mechanical engineering at National Taiwan University, is a new voice with an eye for fleeting detail. She picks out the tiny things that set Berlin apart, like how homeless men keep dogs, and renders them with a light and no-nonsense prose. She’s also expert at depicting the special miseries of the displaced person, such as the downgrade in social class, or how things that never cost a cent before are now painfully expensive — for instance, deep silences with a loved one over a pay phone. That’s Hsu calling his mother, of course — his ex-wife is back in Taiwan but doesn’t want to chat — and every expensive session leaves him feeling increasingly alienated from his home country.
Is his true home in Berlin? The question is open as Hsu struggles along in a foreign land, enrolling in a German class and cooking for himself for the first time. In another unprecedented move, he recoils from a series of bad housemates and springs for a little studio, the first personal apartment of his 32-year-old life.
The Waiting Room is clearly his bildungsroman, but he interacts with the locals, too, and eventually Tsou expands the stories of key auxiliary characters, all whom prove loosely connected to the Foreign Registration Office. Some, in their own ways, are alienated just like Hsu. There’s Mrs. Nesmeyanova, an immigrant from Minsk who becomes his landlady and housemate. She wants to leave Germany and go home, but can’t on account of an overbearing husband. Then there’s Ms. Meyer, an overweight and socially isolated German national who handles his visa request. Hsu feels put out because she treats him mechanistically like a number, as if that were a uniquely German thing. But it’s a people thing — unwittingly, he does the same thing to her, never learning her name and thinking of her, when the dreaded occasion requires it, simply as a fat German lady.
It’s with the cast of side characters that Tsou loses some of her gift for intimate details that build to match an absurd and unexpected reality. The weakest moments in the book are when Hsu meets, at separate times, a character named Christian and another named Christina and neither named Jesus, though they may as well have been for their weirdly wise dialogue and the tonic effect that it has on him.
Christian is a German who moves into the same building and listens to music turned up too loud, irritating all his neighbors except Hsu, who’s only intrigued. The two of them become friends and eventually lovers, and Christian teaches him that it’s not all right to let German phone companies scam him and that it is all right to ask for help.
Christina is a third-generation German Turk who meets Hsu by chance at her art exhibition at the Foreign Registration Office. She has thought a great deal about her identity as a German and as an ethnic Turk, which is believable, but her monologue — composed and grand like a personal statement for graduate school in sociology — is not. Despite that, their encounter is good for Hsu, who realizes that he is just like her, a thing caught between here and there. “Don’t be afraid. Chin up, back straight,” Christina concludes, unknowingly repeating Christian’s words of counsel, in one of the more aggressively placed coincidences of the novel.
At this point the plot is awkward, but it is an unusual disruption from a mostly elegant narrative. In a way, Christina performs a service, leading the reader to clumsily zoom out above the minutiae of Hsu’s life, so that his story is not exactly the story of a Taiwanese man, but a hopeful narrative about someone who learns to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. Perhaps, Christina/Tsou suggests, so long as people continue to grow, where home is will continue to be an open question.
The Waiting Room, a recommended title in this year’s Taipei International Book Exhibition, won a translation grant from the Taipei Book Fair Foundation and is being translated into English by professor Michelle Wu (吳敏嘉) of National Taiwan University’s Department of Foreign Languages and Literature. The work is scheduled for completion this year.
The Waiting Room (等候室)
By Tsou Yung-shan
Sept.13 to Sept.19 Fu Pei-mei (傅培梅) leafed through the telephone book and jotted down the address of every prestigious Taipei restaurant she could find. She then mailed out her request: “Seeking famous chefs to learn cooking from, high pay.” A star student from a wealthy family in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, Fu never bothered with cooking growing up. After fleeing her hometown at the age of 15 due to the Chinese Civil War, she eventually ended up in Taiwan, where she held a number of clerical jobs in Taipei. She enjoyed office work, especially since the company provided meals. This was the 1950s, however, and
Last week the Transitional Justice Commission proposed taking down the statue of Chang Kai-shek (蔣介石) at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in central Taipei. It depicted the move as part of a plan for excising markers of authoritarianism from the park. The most important task, the commission said, would be removing the hall’s “axis of worship,” the 6.3m-tall bronze statue of Chiang. Let us hope that if and when that obscenity is finally removed from the memorial, it is placed in the famed Cihu Memorial Sculpture Garden in Taoyuan’s Dasi District (大溪), where it can be properly mocked for all eternity. CHIANG,
The pandemic seems to be far from over, but the Post Pandemic Renaissance Theater (PPRT) is getting a head start by putting on its first event last Friday: the first round of the Taiwan Monologue Slam. Ten contestants delivered passionate and nuanced pieces on stage, and the audience voted with their phones for two winners who will advance to the local finals in November. There will be four finals in the next year, and each winner is automatically entered into the World Monologue Games regional finals, bypassing the preliminaries. The goal is to eventually get a Taiwan team to next summer’s games,
As dozens of pro-China lawmakers in Hong Kong’s legislature stood up in May to heap praise on a bill giving Beijing an effective veto over candidates in the city’s elections, only one legislator condemned the move. “Cronyism will be the primary prerequisite for this election,” said Cheng Chung-tai, by then the legislature’s sole directly elected opposition member, after the others had either resigned or been removed. “Corruption is bound to happen,” he told the assembly at the time. By late last month, Cheng had been stripped of his seat by the committee he had criticized, which ruled that he didn’t “genuinely uphold”