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Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops
Book Award Category
A Taiwanese immigrant bride––disowned by her father, abandoned by her American husband in Texas, and inarticulate in English––victoriously creates her own destiny.
Logline or Premise
A Taiwanese immigrant bride––disowned by her father, abandoned by her American husband in Texas, and inarticulate in English––victoriously creates her own destiny. Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops is an extraordinary true story about this strong woman of color determined to defy gender inequality and racism to chart her own path.
EDINBURG, TEXAS. NOVEMBER 1996
I discovered that I became a starter wife from a light switch.
Not a light bulb, like I had a big idea. A light switch. A light switch in my apartment that I flipped on and off but the living room remained dark, and that darkness caused a pricking, tingling sensation in my hands and feet.
When I left the apartment two hours earlier, the lights worked, the heater ran, and Cameron—my husband of sixteen months— was doing homework on our bed. Lately we kept fighting about investing in the boat his father planned to purchase. I said no, and we had been giving each other the cold shoulder for days. Tired of our never-ending arguments, now I wanted reconciliation. This particular day, around dinnertime, I went to seek marriage advice from my classmate, a fellow Taiwanese student. Before leaving, I stood before Cameron and said good-bye. If he heard me, he acted otherwise. So I wrote I love you, Cam on a Post-it note and left it on the inside of the front door. It wasn’t there now.
Now I had to feel my way to the bedroom.
Felt the bed.
Felt one pillow.
Felt a chill.
I didn’t need to keep feeling anymore. Didn’t need to avoid bumping into the desk, or the chairs, or Cameron’s bike. They weren’t in the dark with me.
In the dark, there was no warmth.
No gas for the heater.
My heartbeat quickened and thundered in my ears.
What happened? Am I in the wrong apartment? Must be. All the units look the same on the outside. . . .
I felt my way out of the apartment and double-checked the gold number nailed to the door: 21. My apartment, no mistake.
NO!—no, no, no, no, no! Where’s Cameron?
I tucked my hands under my armpits in the November evening chills. My legs trembled as I paced in a circle in small steps. The windows of other units in the building glowed in golden light. Through my next-door neighbors’ blinds, I noticed them sitting around the coffee table, Seinfeld playing on TV, the waft of their gumbo dinner in the air. It looked warm and inviting where they were. I stood in the cold, dark night, staring past my door into the abyss. For tonight’s dinner, I’d planned to make chicken stir-fry. Cameron would’ve enjoyed it on the couch right there, over there, there, there, there, where it was nothing but emptiness now.
The black of the apartment reminded me of a summer night, three months earlier, when the power had gone out in the entire complex. That night Cameron drove back to his parents’ home, in the next town, for an air-conditioned room. I didn’t go with him because I would’ve rather eaten dog food than see my in-laws. To say they were bad people would be telling only half the truth. A big part of the problem was me—I avoided them to avoid speaking English.
I was born and raised in Taiwan and was only confident speaking Mandarin Chinese. On this fateful night, I was a fresh-off-the-boat immigrant—having been in the U.S. for only sixteen months—and heavily dependent on Cameron’s Chinese-speaking prowess for almost everything. For example, underwear shopping: he had to tag along to tell the lingerie store clerk I wished to get my size measured in the metric system. America’s customary system didn’t mean anything to me. Another time, I accidentally cut my finger with a rusty utility knife while opening a package. Cameron had to explain to the emergency room nurse why I needed a tetanus shot. For me to carry on English conversations wasn’t just a linguistic challenge or an intellectual evaluation; it was an insurmountable task.
Of course, avoiding my in-laws couldn’t possibly be healthy for my marriage. But there were other contributing factors to my shaky relationship with Cameron too. To say it was all my doing would be giving me more credit than I deserve. After all, there are always two people in a relationship; one simply can’t start a marital war alone. However, I’ll say, my short marriage to Cameron helped shorten the emotional distance between him and his father.
Glad to have helped!
Upon discovering the non-working light switch, I realized I needed to overcome my dependence on Cameron as my mouthpiece, as well as the fear that crippled my ability to communicate with English speakers, and go immediately to the apartment office in the next building to talk with the manager.
“Hi, I’m Allison.” My voice shocked myself more than it did the manager, Jane—an overweight woman in her late fifties whose eyes at this moment were as huge as tennis balls. She’d never heard me speak. In fact, she’d probably never really looked at me before. I was always behind Cameron, who did all the talking with his proud Texan accent and charismatic humor. But the real surprise was hearing myself say the name that my tenth-grade English teacher had given me the way Americans do, without mixing up the L and R—one of the English-language learning curves that most Chinese people struggle with. Not Ayhreesong. I said Allison. The parting of my lips + the tip of my tongue kicking off the back of my upper front teeth + the soft dropping of my tongue + short hissing sss juxtaposed with the nasal ending = Allison. I said that.
Jane took off her reading glasses. “Forgot somethin’?”
I shook my head. “Cam—Cameron gone.”
“Well, o’course. So should you. Why you still here?”
I knew what she said but didn’t understand what she meant. I blurted out “yes” but immediately felt idiotic and frustrated to be stuck with it. “My house, cold.” I pointed in the direction of my apartment and hugged myself. I shivered exaggeratedly and chattered my teeth purposely.
Jane shook her head. “K—ma’am, I’m confused. Why you still here anyway? Weren’t Cameron’s parents here earlier to move you guys out?”
Weren’t Cameron’s parents here earlier to move you guys out?
Weren’t Cameron’s parents here earlier to move you guys out?
Weren’t Cameron’s parents here earlier to move you guys out?
“Really?” I exclaimed, not caring about mixing up my L and R.
Jane pushed her office chair away with her bottom and walked to a wall cabinet behind her seat. She fished out a key from rows of hooks and waved it in the air. “See? Number 21. Your apart- ment. Cameron turned in the key.” She put her other hand on her hip and leaned forward. “Question, ma’am: Why you still here?”
I was still here, in the apartment manager’s office, in Edinburg, in Texas, in the U.S.A., and I was mighty lost.
“Sorry,” I said, my scalp starting to feel numb. “Please, one week”—I held up my index finger—“I find help. I want stay—myself.”
I hoped she would not only understand but also have mercy on me. My cheeks and earlobes were burning. My throat was tight, as though I were dry-swallowing a pill. And my head was so heavy I could only look down at my shoes. At this point, everything about my life shared the same theme of emptiness: empty apartment, empty pockets, empty hands—palms up—asking for empathy.
Maybe Jane detected an unusual sense of urgency in the abandoned foreigner on her premises; maybe she fathomed the depth of my trouble and grasped the serious reality that, at this moment, she was the only one who could make the situation a little more bearable for me. Whatever it was, she slumped into her chair, clicked her tongue, pushed a pile of papers on her desk from one side to another, stroked her temple, and then, with her seemingly softened heart, said, “Ay—you stay.”
Back at the apartment, I didn’t take off my shoes before entering. No need now. It wasn’t sacred ground anymore, as Chinese culture had taught me what a home was. I’d convinced Cameron to leave his shoes by the door whenever he came back to this place—our place. He probably didn’t do it earlier when he and his parents were here deliberately ruining my life. This space was likely soiled now.
From now on, my life would be divided into before and after becoming a starter wife. My steps would chart a seam between two periods on my life’s timeline: one ending, one beginning, right here where Cameron left nothing behind.
But that wasn’t entirely true. He did leave behind the bed we’d bought together at a yard sale. I lay on it and curled into a ball. The utilities couldn’t be reconnected at this late hour. No heat. No light. Through the naked mattress, a biting chill seeped into my kidneys, my lungs, my head. I probably would see my breath if I could see anything, but I couldn’t even see my fingers when I waved them in front of me. I didn’t see it coming, all of this—Cameron teaming up with his parents for the blindside—and now I was in the dark, not knowing what to do next. It was just me here now. A twenty-three-year-old immigrant with a three- year-old’s English vocabulary. A newlywed, dumped.
I could cry.
I could curse.
I could scream.
But whatever I did, I would do it all alone.
I—what a lonely word to be left alone with!
Four years prior, in 1992, I was a freshman at Fu-Jen Catholic University in Taipei, Taiwan. One rainy December night I walked down the street with an umbrella, past a bus stop, and heard a panicked cry behind me.
“Stop. Stop. Hey—STOP!”
Two unlucky Caucasian young men were chasing the last bus of the night that rolled away without them. An African man slowly caught up to them, his white cane tapping in puddles. Obviously frustrated, one of the Caucasian guys threw his backpack on the sidewalk by my feet. I was shocked and confused. Should I pick it up and return it? Remain still? Offer him my umbrella?
I peeked at him from under the umbrella rim. He was Bruce Willis’s doppelgänger with full brown hair. Fit, about five foot ten. A crooked nose. Straight-as-a-wall teeth. Penetrating brown eyes. In that precise moment when I caught him looking into my eyes too, my body caught fire, and I had a distinctive revelation that he would someday be my husband. I can’t explain where it came from—a tiny thought that percolated through my mind and instantly caused my face and ears to turn hot. I became so shy I struggled to make eye contact when he spoke to me.
“Excuse me, my friend here”—he pointed at the African man— “is going to the school for the . . . for people with . . . um . . . can’t-see eyes. He missed the bus.”
I nodded sympathetically.
“Can you call a taxi for him? My Chinese is . . .” He sighed and looked away.
I couldn’t look away now if I tried. I couldn’t even blink. That handsome face . . . Gosh, I had fallen in love with a stranger! Not madly, yet, but the attraction was undeniable. Even though I suspected the feeling was mutual, I had no way of finding out.
I was a nineteen-year-old Taiwanese Mormon girl who spoke pathetic English; he was a twenty-year-old American Mormon missionary who spoke scattered Chinese. Scattered Chinese prevailed, in our case. But it wasn’t even the language barrier that kept me guessing if the attraction was mutual. It was because this guy, Elder Cameron Chastain, was required to abide by the church rule forbidding missionaries from getting involved in a romantic relationship during their two-year service. They were expected to serve the Lord with all their heart, might, mind, and strength.
Following that night at the bus stop, I frequently spotted him and his mission companion—the other Caucasian young man I saw that night—walking on campus, usually outside the Foreign Language building, where my classes were. Maybe they had been there every day and I’d just never noticed. Now that I had seen him talking with people in the courtyard, I could no longer sit in the classroom without glancing out the window, looking for him, wanting to see his face and hear his voice. In my notebook I scribbled his name and sketched images of him and dreamed of replacing anyone who occupied the space next to him, who held his time and attention when I couldn’t.
Every Sunday, Cameron, his companion, and a group of students from my school who also belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (nicknamed The Mormon Church) rode the same bus to church. A bus in Taipei on a Sunday usually carried what seemed like double the number of passengers than its maximum capacity. Those who didn’t get a seat wrapped their wrists around the ceiling hoops and stood like a thick jungle of trees, their backpacks and handbags smacking into one another like branches in the wind.
It was a battle parting the sea of bodies to get to the back of the bus, but I had to. Stepping on toes, rubbing chests with strangers, inhaling body odor and garlicky breaths, I had to get to the back so I could daringly stare at Cameron from a distance, through the cracks of silhouettes. While he talked to people, I studied the movement of his mouth and imagined the words he said. His slant-lipped smile made me swoon. If the sea of passengers between us was the string that connected two plastic cups—Cameron’s mouth pressed into one; my ear to the other—would I hear “I love you” too?
Yeah, I would do anything to be near him, but being too close to him made my heart jumpy and my mind foggy and I broke out in a hot sweat even on a wintery day. It happened whenever we attended the same event or were simply in the same room for single young adult activities at church, Sunday school class, and scripture study in my dorm lounge. The worst was when I asked him to help me with my English homework one day. I couldn’t stay away from him like I did on a bus, obviously. I sat next to him at a cafeteria table, his companion across from us, memorizing Chinese words from flashcards.
Cameron carried a pen in his shirt pocket. He used it to write down new Chinese vocabulary he learned in a pocket-size spiral notebook. Watching his fingers wrap around the pen, firmly and tight, I wished I were that pen—that lucky little thing—to be touched by him that way. To be tucked in his shirt pocket, close to his heart. To go home with him, live with him. To be the one thing he couldn’t leave the house without. And I fantasized about him writing in his diary that I was his wildest dream.
After editing my paper for my English class, Cameron taught me a Bible message: To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven . . . A time to love, and a time to hate. . . .
This time to love and to hate concept was fitting and pertinent in our relationship. In that moment, I only felt love. Never had I thought there would be a time when he would walk out of our marriage, leaving me homeless, penniless, and voiceless in a foreign land. No, I couldn’t fathom a time when he would make such a hateful choice.
After serving six months in my college town, Cameron completed his mission and returned home to Texas. On his departure day, I lay in a dry bathtub in the dorm and counted. One more hour before he boards the plane. One more minute. His flight is taking off. He’s been away from Taiwan for a minute now. An hour. Two. Three. He’s gone. . . . And every second he flew farther away, I ached more in the head, in the eyes, in the nose, the ears, the mouth, the heart, the stomach, the arms, the legs, and I didn’t know how to go on with life. All I knew was to fill the bathtub with tears and snot and dangling saliva from my mouth that repeatedly wailed, “Cameron . . . Cam...... ”
My heart goes out to you. As someone living in a foreign country where they don't speak English, I could really relate to your struggle. You did a great job of putting your emotions onto the page. I admire your courage to tell your story.
An inspiring tale of…
An inspiring tale of resilience.
This is a very moving story…
This is a very moving story and I was touched by your struggles. Fast paced and a good narrative.
Very well written
Had me gripped from start to end, and left me wanting to read more.
This story grabbed my attention at the start and kept it throughout. Well done!
Wonderfully written story!
I truly enjoyed reading your story. It grabbed my attention right from the start and kept me going to the end. I want to know what happens next.