While I was reorganizing the family bookshelves last week, I found a novel entitled Heaven Lake by John Dalton. Unfamiliar with the title, I was just about to throw it into the donation bin before the cover image of a Chinese woman leaning out a train window, the wind rustling her hair, caught my eye. The plot summary on the back cover piqued my interest further. In my hands, from some unknown source (I’m usually very aware of all the books that enter the home; my mother must’ve bought the book while I was away), was a book about a twenty-three year old American male in Taiwan.
There was really no choice at this point; I had to read the book. My policy with novels is to screen my selections ahead of time. In general I’m risk averse about reading bad books that won’t please or teach me as much as another book I could spend my time reading (if you want to develop the same lovely, stressful quirk, read The Fly Swatter by Nicholas Dawidoff). This tendency is especially pronounced with novels. Reading Heaven Lake was a big breach of protocol. I hoped the book would offer me a chance to reassess my views of American-Taiwanese culture clash, as well as serve up a few nuggets of insight that I had never managed to notice or express.
Overall, the book touched on the major cultural discontinuities without satisfying my curiosity for social differences that I had never noticed. At its best moments the author captured Taiwanese or Chinese idiosyncracies that I had noticed but never put into words. For example, the Chinese/Taiwanese woman’s love and mastery of the personal photoshoot. The following is from a scene in which the main character, Vincent Saunders of Red Bud, Illinois is in a park with a female Chinese friend:
He eased forward and snapped a photo. She held herself still, the same pose, which he puzzled over a while until she said “more” and he squeezed the shutter twice again. He thought it a rather conspicuous activity, the taking of photographs so seemingly worshipful and private here in a public park. He worried that to passersby he would appear a tactless voyeur. Yet when they moved to other locations, a terraced cove of the lake, an ivy-backed archway, he saw camera-toting admirers trailing other young women. Several were extravagant in their posturing, versed in an array of preening flourishes. . .
Credit to John Dalton: This is spot-on. Whenever I walked through a scenic part of Taiwan or China, I saw at least three or four women, either with their boyfriends or girlfriends, posing like fashion models in front of attractive background scenery. I would often wonder how these young women learned so many poses. They had to study magazines, TV shows or newspapers. There’s no way one woman intuits so many poses.
The poses ranged from goofy to sultry. Even little girls as old as five or six had a repertoire of funny or cute facial expressions. Elderly women never whipped out an unnatural pose, either because they thought their appearance unworthy or they can’t understand the vain, preening process. Some men get in on the action too.
Not all women participate—as much as Taiwanese Katherine loves pictures, she has only three or four basic, versatile poses. I have a few theories but no solid understanding of when or why the habit developed in East Asia. Rather than bore you with them, here’s another very accurate, very funny passage from Heaven Lake. Here, Vincent is traveling by train through rural China as he is served a plate of green beans with gravy. Dalton highlights the perils and confusions of eating in backwater China:
He chewed slowly, mechanically, a dozen or more beans, until he noticed that mixed within the gravy were coarse brown specks, like small rice or wheat husks. He raised the plate to his chin and realized, with an almost total lack of alarm, that these specks were actually medium-sized brown ants, Chinese ants, desert ants, perhaps, dead or motionless beneath the quagmire of gravy.
From the kitchen came a sudden boom of laughter. Pots collided and rang out. He stopped scrutinizing the ants and tried wrapping his mind around several different notions at once. One: the ants had come aboard clinging to the beans and had been served to him accidentally. Two: the waiter and cooks, bigots or pranksters, had salted his beans with insects and were now huddled in the kitchen rejoicing in their stunt. Three: the ants were part of a peculiar regional recipe. Try as he might, he could not decide which was accurate. . . . It seemed a dilemma he could scrutinize again and again over the course of a lifetime without ever arriving at one, irreducible answer.