A Reading Life

During my second year of teaching in Taiwan, a tenth-grader stopped me mid-class to ask whether it was possible that the meaning of texts was not as subterranean as he’d been led to believe, that perhaps we were just imposing layers of meaning onto things that were just things. He was fifteen, a mathematician, accustomed to the lucidity of proofs. 

Never mind that it was a common question, a literature-class cliché; it catapulted the class into action. “The writers put these words and images here for a purpose,” his classmate, a junior, reasoned, her eyes sharp. “It’s our job to find out what that is.”

But he wanted to know: Did that mean there is a fixed meaning out there waiting to be found? How do we know what the writer intended? 

“Knowing isn’t the point,” another said. “Sometimes the writer doesn’t even know what it all could mean. Sometimes readers surprise writers with the meaning they discover.”

“We can choose to interpret the texts as meaningful even if we never discover the real or ultimate meaning, and even if that ultimate meaning doesn’t exist,” added a third.

He wasn’t sure he was convinced. 

“Who is to say the writer’s intention is necessarily any more important than the meaning we find or create?” I said. “After all, the process of reading is a negotiation between reader and text.” 

A year and a half into teaching, I was finally starting to believe that what I said was true. 

Walking home alone, I could not stop thinking of his question. Not long ago, I had been in his place, peering into what I saw as the dark expanse of my life and wondering how to justify the enormous effort it took to locate meaning. 

Meaning-making: the basic goal of all literary study, repeated often enough to be reduced to cliche. To make: to “bring into being by forming, shaping, or altering material.” In school, I learned to synthesize and architect, to find and give form. Technically, it was the one thing my education had equipped me to do. But I became jaded in my studies; the significance of texts, which I could access only through the mind, had all begun to feel the same. All the while, I believed that to extend the meaning-making impulse to the narrative of my own life would be naive.

In class, I ask my students about the purpose of small details. What work is this sentence doing in the scene? This word, this semicolon? How do they help us understand what the story is about? Everywhere, it seems, there is significance waiting to be wrung.

I pretend to have answers. But at night, the familiar refrain comes to haunt me. Why is this here? What am I doing at the helm of an English class, spending my days imploring students to pay closer attention to syntax and diction when I myself have lost the ability to make things signify? 

I remember how the unraveling began, though maybe the beginnings of stories are suspect. Spring in Chicago, the third year of college, a party at my then-boyfriend’s house. An innocuous night. What could go wrong? A drink and an edible, its potency surprising. The world twisting into grotesque shapes, the air thickening like vapor, my boyfriend’s arms around me like ropes, my whole body disappearing. Reciting my name on the long drive to the hospital, two small syllables tethering me to reality. Was I allowed to call it psychosis? Even after, I did not know. For months, I found myself running out of rooms, suddenly unable to breathe. Like a loop coming off the needle, a stitch being dropped.

Then, out of nowhere, the sense that something was not right. A sudden chill at the sight of some women, lesbian couples. The words I’d later choose, queer, bisexual, sounding off-key, or too loose, like they’d let the water in. Later, I’d remember this time and think not of desire, which came after, but of fear. In class, I pretended to ask questions about the right things, like biopolitics and Bleak House, but the only one that mattered was the one I could not say: how can you get rid of the parts of yourself you cannot bear? The terms I gathered––obsessive thought, internalized homophobia––never helping. Twenty-two, picturing myself at the edge, peering into the void.

In a creative writing workshop, I realized my stories had no arc. They started and stopped, choking and sputtering, however hard I tried to sustain the narrative lines. My professor told me to keep writing. Maybe in ten years you’ll be able to tell a good story, he said. 

Graduate school, training as a reporter. Chicago, then DC. An accumulation of fears, the falling away of everything else. Reading about Kevin Hines, driven to jump off Golden Gate Bridge by a voice in his head. Trauma everywhere I looked, my stomach turning every time I tried to read. Stories were unreachable. The years were becoming a string of words without syntax.

Twenty-four, a retreat from the world to my childhood home. Unable to be left alone for an hour. Looking into the mirror, I saw a person who no longer made sense––who might, without warning, turn a knife on me or shove me in front of a truck. The distinct feeling that I’d evaporated, and in my body, a stranger had made her home.

At home, I was shocked by my own brittleness. A memory, an unbidden thought, a line on the page could undo me. I felt porous, as if any brush with sorrow could cause despair to leak into my organs, filling my lungs and spleen. At any moment, I might float out of my body, out of my life. Sitting in my childhood bedroom, I scanned my bookshelf and caught a glimpse of a ten-year-old who declared that she would grow up to be Artemis, Jo March, or Sun WuKong the Monkey King. I left my books untouched, free from the ghost she’d become.

They seemed like the ordinary struggles of young adulthood, but in them, something was lost. Semantics, sense. What’s the story about? My vision narrowed until I could discern only two readings of my life: one literal and arbitrary––a straight line, then rupture––absent of subtext, and the other swollen with possibility, a heap of floating signifiers, endlessly intertwined.

And what to do with the unspooled threads spilling from my palm? I came to Taiwan––a place that reminded me of childhood summers, loud dinners at round tables, my grandma’s midnight games of big two––wanting answers to what had come before, a response to the jagged call. Wanting to take root. After graduate school, feeling unmoored, I’d half-seriously considered ordaining as a Buddhist nun, but instead, when a hometown acquaintance told me that she knew someone hiring for a small experimental school in Taiwan, I said yes. 

All along, I was trying to find a new shape for loss. Though I’d come here feeling the pull and propulsion of my life’s narrative, wanting an answer to the enduring question, What happens next? what I needed were stories constructed differently: not straight lines and sharp angles marked by conquest and resolution, but instead loops, blank spaces, a constellation of webs.

August in Taipei. So hot you can hardly breathe, every inhale a small rebellion.

School starts on a Tuesday. I arrive early, waving a nervous hello to the security guard before taking the stairs two at a time and letting myself into the two-bedroom apartment that is the whole school.

Thirty minutes till the students arrive.

Pacing around the room, straightening and re-straightening the desks, I rehearse my opening remarks about the year ahead. The class is structured to help you develop in tandem the twin skills of interpretation and expression, seeing and telling. The year begins with an exploration of close textual analysis, a practice that can sometimes feel like doing detective work: putting together the clues the writer has left for you through the artistic choices they make in order to see what meaning we can forge. The sentences, filled with words I’d only ever heard my teachers say, sound convincing, painting a picture of a class that had been carefully constructed and lovingly tweaked until the narrative arc was as clear as a spiritual insight.

But there is no arc. I’d learned only 12 hours ago what, and whom, I’d be teaching: six classes total, two in the Day School program, four in the afternoon Enrichment program for students who attended other schools, local and international, during the day. Literature and Language Arts, students from seven to seventeen. They came from affluent families, the director had explained––families wanting a classic liberal arts education, critical thinking, intellectual rigor, something different from the standard test prep and English cram schools. My colleague, a tech bro on sabbatical for a year, was informed that he was not going to be teaching Science as he’d been led to believe, but instead, Spanish History. Neither of us had ever taught a class in our lives.

Suddenly, the front door swings open, and there they are, the Day School students, standing in a single-file line: a parade of red ties, crisp white shirts, and patent leather shoes. One by one, the students shake my boss’s hand before tucking their shoes into the shoe rack and filing into one of three classrooms. The four oldest students arrange themselves in the seats of my classroom, chattering in beautiful, agile Chinglish––a language that had always felt like a secret place only my sister and I knew how to get to––and I feel a twinge of tenderness. Could I have been like them, as radiant and self-possessed, had I not spent years contorting myself to the demands of my white Connecticut private schools? Or were we more alike than I allowed myself to see?  

For a moment, we sit there, beholding one another. When I ask them how long they’ve been at this school and how they like it, a sophomore with glasses tries to explain using carefully chosen words: like homeschooling, alternative education, experimental microschool, liberal arts focus. Another, with long black hair, a heart-shaped face, and watchful eyes, gives me a meaningful look, and says her mother sent her here because she was getting too distracted at her old school. A beat later, she reveals that the last few teachers, all young and inexperienced, hadn’t lasted more than a year, that their approach to teaching literature had amounted to little more than asking basic comprehension questions. The way she looks at me suggests that she thinks I’ll be different.

I feel a sudden surge of protectiveness, and an invisible pact seals between us. For a moment, the ten years between us evaporate, and I forget that I am their teacher, not their friend, their sister, themselves. 

When I open my mouth again to tell them about the year and about myself, I see that my words are a spell, conjuring before their eyes someone competent, someone who had always known what she wanted, someone who had glided from one glamorous pursuit to another before floating back down to earth, landing in a classroom in Taipei. That someone towers over me like a giant marionette that I must now animate.

We read Lahiri, “A Temporary Matter,” a story I’d chosen because it reminded me of a time in my life when I still read, still believed in a reading life.

“Why might a story about a rocky marriage begin with a notice about a power outage? And why might the notice be the subject of the first sentence, and not the protagonist?” My questions, half improvised, launch them into conversation. 

“Could the power outage be a symbol of something?” a ninth-grade boy asks sheepishly.

“Obviously, it could be a symbol of their failing relationship,” the sophomore with the watchful gaze snaps. “But if you really think about it, it might also be that once the lights go off, the darkness hides some things and reveals others. Sometimes we’re more ourselves in the dark.”

“Oh!” another cries, her mind having skipped forward ten steps. “Maybe that’s why they’re the objects of the sentence.”

“What does being the object of a sentence imply?” I ask.

“That they’re passive? Not in control?” she ventures.

“Right,” the ninth-grader adds. “Because if they’re more themselves in the dark, maybe there’s something the characters are hiding.”

“Maybe they lack self-knowledge,” his deskmate says, as if it’s an idea he’s all too familiar with.

“And because of that lack, they’re displaced from their own stories, so their names don’t appear till the end of the first paragraph,” the one with glasses concludes, sunlight breaking through the clouds. 

Watching them, I feel an unexpected thrill. 

Class ends, ninety minutes over. “We’re so pumped for this year, Ms. Huang,” the first sophomore says, tossing her long hair back, an air of conspiracy in her eyes. I look down at the calendar on my phone, at the relentless march of days before me, and wonder how long it’ll be before my cover is blown.

Not long, as it turns out. Only moments after class ends, I find myself in another classroom, this time faced with seven middle schoolers, all boys, in a room that smells like a wet rag. The scent of my fear must be as strong to them as the smell of gasoline is to dogs, because all period, they taunt me, hurling papers across the room, trading gossip across the aisles, jeering when I turn my back. Above us, the fluorescent lights flicker weakly. I look around the room, at the towering seventh grader who could, with one nudge of his elbow, knock over any one of his classmates, and at the sixth grader who peers at me beneath raised brows, as if wondering how long I would last. In the corner sits a new student whose vacant gaze makes me wonder whether he knows I am there at all.

“They’re testing you,” my boss says one morning after the Day School classes have been dismissed, and I feel the threat of failure in her words. “They think you’re easy.” Indeed, for weeks, I’d been entertaining the anarchy of the middle schoolers, making light of their arguments, allowing them to build towers of pencils and erasers during class––but wasn’t that the point of middle school?

She devises an alternate strategy: random daily vocabulary checks on difficult words from the nightly reading, with three missed or incorrect definitions resulting in a punishment.  “After I have a talk with them, I don’t want to hear any of the kids making excuses on account of something Ms. Huang said.” In other words, the expectation of a unified front.

During a faculty meeting, the headmaster, an older white man visiting from Canada, warns me against giving the students course policies and expectations in writing. By refraining from explicitly stating boundaries, he explains, we’re keeping the kids on their toes, ensuring that anything can be turned into a punishable offense. Inexperience and fear keep me silent, but for the first time, I understand that I’m walking on cracked glass.

After all, it’s the most defiant students who capture my awe. I relish their hubris even though I’m not supposed to. When they challenge my interpretations, when they assert that they’re right, when they stage silent protests against my boss’s demands with a roll of their eyes, I look on in pride; these gestures I can’t help but interpret as instructions in self-respect. I trust that they can see my admiration. Whenever my boss comes to surveil my class without warning or to critique their essays and projects, I see the way my students search my face before looking at her, pulling taut the invisible string between us. 

We are making a world together, but what we’ve made is fragile. My boss, who presides over the students’ extracurricular activities, bedtimes, meals, and college applications, who says she cares more about the students than their parents do, is a tornado. Her routine rages thicken the air. When a student strikes a raw nerve, she lambasts the whole family. Often, wanting public corroboration for insidious opinions, she summons me as reinforcement. I learn, not quickly enough, how little room there is for dissent, how unyielding the expectation of my compliance. Once the diatribes end and the dust settles, it is my responsibility to carry forth, turning the students’ attention back to the discussion about motifs or to the lesson on parallelism without so much as a comment about what transpired. I train myself to arrange a look of detachment on my face even when the yelling begins, but my silence traps blades in my throat. I leave each night, my body on fire.    

To live, I arm the students with Orwell, Foucault, Gilman. We talk about the panopticon as if its power has nothing to do with our idyllic classroom lives. We read “The Yellow Wallpaper” and discuss the invisible violence of the gaze. Outside, the world follows the ordinary rhythms of the day: people going to work, dropping off kids, coming home. But inside the classroom, with its glaring fluorescent light, everything feels charged, seditious, alive.

There is a seventh grader with thin scars on his wrists. Pale and gangly, he never seems to be able to keep up with the work. For weeks, he fails his daily vocabulary checks, his name appearing on the board each day under Vocab – Consequences. He loses books, pencils, the thread of his own ideas. His classmates look at him daily with a mixture of pity and gratitude: finally, someone whose crimes are grave and consistent enough to overshadow their own petty, one-off misdeeds. On days when the director isn’t there, I pull him into the spare, closet-sized classroom used for study hall and storage, ask him what I can do to help, try to telegraph my concern in language that conceals my outrage. But most days, overwhelmed by my own impotence, I write his name on the board, condemning him to a Consequence. The punishments, I learn, are designed to humble the students, sand down their edges, motivate them, and make them resilient. 

One morning, she stops me mid-class to interrogate the seventh grader about his incomplete homework. Unable to account for his own disorganization, he comes up with an elaborate and half-hearted lie, every sentence contradicting the last. The class and I watch the tense cross-examination unfold until finally, gray-faced, he stops responding. At the door, she whips her head around and points at him. “Ke-wu!” she screams, finger quivering, before the door slams. Wicked.

Another image. The same night, long after dark, once all the other students had left. The two of them in an empty classroom, my boss and the student, one with a novel open, the other with the dictionary, making their tortured way through The Once and Future King. From afar, they almost could have been old friends.

Jennifer S. Cheng, writing of her yearning for paradox, describes, A full-bodied shape brimming with silence and thunder, chaos and wholeness, boldness and disorientation. Things disintegrating even as they take on mass.

Some days, I want to know: How to describe the feeling of a reality overturned, ground giving way to sand? At times, I almost felt a tenderness toward my boss. Her rage––which might be grief, which might be love––is the whetstone against which these blades have been sharpened. A student tells me this place wouldn’t be the same without her, surprising me. 

Cheng writes, We are, if anything, in tension.    

Here is something I know as fact. My love for my students, my awe. Like weeds, they spring from crevices, impossible to crush. Everywhere I look, I see evidence of their bright, defiant majesty: in a seventh-grader’s hand, flying into the air even before a question is asked, sending water bottle spilling and pencils tumbling; in a ninth-grader’s interpretations, so literal they could only be attacks on my boss’s purported credo of critical thinking; and in another’s sentences, which refuse to explain themselves even as they sag under the weight of her impenetrable thinking. Complicate your argument, I tell the first, and simplify, I tell the other, all while secretly hoping that my criticisms might never reach them, that they stay exactly as they are.

Years later, teaching in San Francisco, I’d encounter a line in Vanessa Angélica Villarreal’s “f=[root][future], ” and though by then I know better than to pluck the poem from its context, and though by then my frameworks for interpretation have grown, I can’t help but think of these students: & every minute I choose you, choose to fight & don’t drive off the mountain, I encounter the infinite as the will to survive.

Months pass. We make our way through the books I read in high school––I yet unaware that teaching could mean not just a retracing of the past, but a cleaving, a remaking––and venture into the texts from college: Oates, Morrison, Joyce. Somehow, I am reading again. I am rediscovering, alongside them, how to put my ear up to a sentence and listen for its heartbeat. My desk at home, littered with post-it notes, becomes a shrine to words I’d lost. Halcyon, propinquity, limn.

I stay for another year, not wanting to leave the students yet; not able to imagine a life beyond them. In class, it feels like I am speaking a code only they understand, filled with ricocheting references to everything from Ratatouille to de Saussure. We are learning how to exist in a world we cannot grasp, where the shape is never clear, and where there isn’t much we can decide for ourselves except perhaps why, and how, we read.                                                                          

In May, I teach Nabokov’s “The Vane Sisters,” in which a conceited, unfeeling professor is mocked by the subtext of the story he inhabits. Though they come into class complaining about the reading, the promise of a puzzle convinces them to take a closer look. We investigate the professor’s failures of perception, which manifest in his callous descriptions of his former student, Sybil, who has committed suicide, and of her sister, Cynthia, with whom he has a brief romance. We consider Cynthia’s connection to the occult, a world the professor dismisses as beyond logic, and wonder at the way he, spooked by the news of her death, tries to see the world as she does: everything a symbol, a sign, a communication from beyond. We arrive at the final paragraph, and I hold my breath as they unscramble the acrostic, bearing the signature of the sisters that the professor cannot see, let alone decode. Together, we watch as the flat square of the story becomes a prism, capable of refracting light.

We are learning to read backward, diagonally, up, down.

Was it possible to read one’s life diagonally?

Some weeks before that, I’d asked them to write stories from their own lives. Write about a time you did something you’re not proud of. Write about your armor. Write a love story.

One student told me her metamorphosis was not yet complete, and would never be.

(The shape of our lives is messy.)

She asked, “How can I salvage meaning when I’m still close to the pain, and when I can’t see what’s ahead?”

I remembered all the times in my life when I longed for something to keep myself upright, to keep from dissolving, formless. I wanted to believe in cliches, in things happening for a reason or hardships being the universe’s gift, for they were frameworks for interpretation. But it seemed naive to read circumstance as symbolism, even if that was what I needed to survive, for believing in them would mean being Cynthia while all the world was the professor.

  The last story I teach is John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse,” a story I’d hated when I read it in college, long before I knew I was allowed to say that I didn’t like something written by a white man, that I couldn’t even understand it. Teaching it feels like an attempt at redemption, though whether for the story or for myself, I do not know.

When I see my students in class that evening, their eyes are full of mischief. Was there a glitch in this file? Is this even a story? Can you write nonsense and call it literature?

An earnest question emerges, humble and essential. Who is telling the story? Author, narrator, or character?

Maybe the narrator is a composite of character and writer, someone ventures. Maybe Ambrose’s struggle to navigate the funhouse is the narrator’s struggle to tell a story. Maybe they two are moving on separate planes until suddenly, at the end, they converge. The hypotheses multiply too quickly for me to keep track.

In a perfect funhouse…getting lost would be impossible.

I begin to see the story as if through a kaleidoscope; with every new comment, it morphs. Funhouse as rite of passage. As narrative without center. As language, closed loop of signifiers and referents; as the attempt to narrate. I watch as the story becomes about the death of the author, which is also his revival, about the exhaustion of meaning, which is also its replenishment. The sentences screeching to a halt are not just nuisances on the page, but dramatizations of our collective, labored attempts to make things signify.

When class ends, they stagger to their feet, dizzy with the volume of possibility, and slip out the door. I linger in the empty classroom, overwhelmed by what a story I perceived to be a pretentious, meaningless intellectual ruse—which it still was, in a way—could make me feel.

A final image. A sophomore, the mathematician who had all year barely bothered to disguise his impatience with the whole murky field of English, his restless fingers moving along an invisible keyboard to Chopin during class, lingering after class one night with something to say. Two tables between us, his backpack on his lap, a gold coin spinning on his desk. I hope to read your writing one day.

Near the end of the year, an email: Thank you for everything. Everything.

How it ends. Not at the end, but in the middle. A December night, halfway through my second year teaching. Looking for a folder of essays I’d written in high school, a search ostensibly motivated by the brute need for examples. Though I haven’t bothered looking for the file in years, it’s easy enough to find. Two clicks, and they appear, the past materializing before my eyes: papers, personal narratives, and college essays written by my 17-year-old self, all bearing my teacher’s scrupulous comments.

First, an attempt at a rudimentary Freudian analysis of Jack’s relationship with Anne Stanton in All the King’s Men. Next, a Buddhist reading of The Shipping News. Then, an essay on an ambiguous relationship with my best friend, the sentences so bombastic they could only have been written by someone who had been instructed for years to emulate Fitzgerald.

Another time, my own childish swagger might have disgusted me, but that night, I feel a shiver of delight. There it is on the page, my own barely contained giddiness at having scoured a text or memory closely enough to draw conclusions all my own. Before long, I’ve read them all, essays from a version of myself who could have so easily been a student in my class. I can almost see her there among my students, in a uniform she would have hated: red tie and crisp white blouse. What would I say to her? Would she have found me fraudulent, captious as she was of her teachers? Would she have offered to hold an umbrella over my head as I crossed the street in the rain, as my students had, laughing at my refusal to own something that I could so easily lose?

I might have been a little afraid of her, found her too acute and proud and full of life. Teaching her might have felt a little like staring into the sun. One evening, I might have found myself in an empty classroom with her as she brooded about the uncertainty of her future in that serious, self-absorbed way of teenagers. I might have assured it was fine, even good, for a line to become a whorl and then an open circle gesturing to the future. Or I might have said nothing, knowing that she’d refuse advice she did not seek, that she didn’t need help anyway. Somehow, she makes me want to live.

Now, with the files still open before me, I watch as the past two years become one long bridge to her. There were parts of my life that, for so long, I’d only been able to read as rupture, after which my own story seemed to go on without me, protagonist and author disappearing in one breath. A line, then the breach, nothing after. Where had I gone all these years? Like Ambrose conjuring Freytag’s Triangle at the story’s end, I’d often wanted to prop up the unraveling story with something familiar––but nothing held.

When I was a kid, I saw myself as a person who knew things. I made up stories, conjured up characters from different eras who wrote letters to each other across time. Narration, from narrare: to make acquainted with, and gnarus: knowing. For years, I believed the story of my life could be animated by that self only, and not the person, strange to me, that I later became.

But I could find my way back, now, knowing I could try a different shape. Not a chasm, but a loop, a dip along the x-axis. What if the breach was only the beginning of the return? What if the thing that looked like a return was actually something else? Was it true that I could’ve been them both all along, the student and the teacher, the child and all the people she’d later be?

I could venture a reading, knowing it would change, again and again: two years as a journey here, to this collision of selves. There were threads I could reclaim, weave back in, now that I wanted to, now that I could imagine how. Much later, I’d come across Ken Liu’s “Hand-Knit Sweater”: A person’s story is knitted together from the single dimension of inexorably passing time, twisting, looping, knotting, winding through memory and experience and grief and hope and regret until it becomes something with a shape, with texture and tension and strength. 

Reading is reconciliation, an outstretched hand reaching across the years.

The Long Tail

My parents speak fluent English, and my Taiwanese is pretty well close to fluent, but some things cannot be communicated.