Going Home

I had Help Me by Hako Yamazaki blasting in my ears when I walked into Daimon Kiyota’s renovated “office” and told him I was done. It wasn’t until halfway through his response that I bothered to take the earbuds out and let them hang from my phone’s audio jack almost all the way down to the floor. My deadpan gaze made him stop and rewind back to the beginning, this time with a shit-eating grin in place of his usual Blackbeard smile.

To my surprise, he stopped himself before he started speaking. His suddenly blank expression masked an eerie calm.

“Everything is Jake, Liling.” That got my attention: it was the first time he had ever used my real name – or any name at all. I felt a bit taken aback, briefly. He wasn’t dealing with my usual humorless bullshit and he was no spring chicken when it came to reading people. I could tell that he was just as serious as I was.

“You’ve been on the lam for a long time. There’s nothing going down in town.” He shrugged dramatically for effect. It didn’t have any, so he put a smile back on his face. “Zip your lips, don’t double-cross me, and you can high-hat every drugstore cowboy and gold digger from here to Big Sur. Copacetic?”

“Copacetic,” I said.

I glanced to my left and right, looking for the Bong Cha treatment.

“We’ll skip that part,” he crowed. “You’re too strong, now.”

I nodded curtly and thought about bowing. To hell with it. I put my earbuds back in and walked out the door of the Dragon’s main temple in Seoul for what I hoped would be the last time.

Kingsmouth is on the other side of the country from my parents’ home in California, so there was still the business of arranging a cross-country flight. I traded in my Pax Romana for a modest sum in pounds at one of the black market vendors in London – apparently the council’s currency is worthless outside the not-so-secret circles that float it.

It was enough to take care of transportation to the West Coast and then some. I bought new clothes for the first time in ages and dumpstered the black-and-purple hoodie that had been my mainstay for the past two years. Mixed memories, more good than bad, none of them worth dwelling on.

I still think of Shani, sometimes, when I look up at the moon at night. Probably better to forget about that one, too.

When I arrived in front of the light-blue rambler my parents called home, the door opened before I had even stepped out of the taxi. As I tipped the driver my mother called out to me with such agitation in her voice that I nearly tripped over my own toothpaste-white shoes running up the sidewalk.

“Oh, Lily. Thank goodness you’re here.”

“Mother! What’s wrong?”

“I made too much for dinner and your father and I can’t eat it all up by ourselves.”

“Oh…” I laughed stupidly, as if I were a six year-old child again. And then it dawned on me that my mother had just called me by my American name for the first time I could remember since I had been born. I looked down at her brown eyes behind thick-rimmed, thick-lensed glasses that cost more than mine did. Her smile, well, you couldn’t put a price on that.

“You’re not angry, mother? After everything that’s happened?”

She pursed her lips and pinched my left cheek between her thumb and index finger. “Just forget everything and start over. Oh, and Liling…”

“Yes, mother?”

“Welcome home.”

Going Home The End.jpg


Sleep, Cousin of Death

I don’t notice the dead bodies any more. An unhinged jaw attached to a lifeless once-was ringed by an oblong hexagon of soaked pine slats scarcely registers among the high-rise book shelves and rigid tendril candles that dominate the bowels of the Devore family crypt. The ghostly attendant rendering ministrations to an audience of skull pedestals and misshapen pastel crystals is but a flicker in the periphery. There is nothing in this place of soot, ash, and dust that has not already been seen and unseen more times than there are days in any of our lives.

Choosing to visit Solomon Island for its Samhain festivities is akin to watching a porn flick because it has a well-written plot. Once the veneer fades, the ever-present smut continues on as it always has, existential grounding or not. I didn’t return entirely of my own accord – my presence had been requested by a secretive individual bearing the name “Jack” who claimed to have an offer I couldn’t refuse. It was equal parts boredom and fatigue from endless field operations that led me to assent to a holiday stay in fog-shrouded Kingsmouth, a popular tourist destination for those who choose to escape reality by vising a tornado-ringed Halloween town where you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting the shambling drowned.


A painstakingly hand-written letter using overly flowery calligraphy appeared to invite me to midnight coffee in the attic of the local academy for the occult. Had I been asked to share chai, I might have declined; I have always preferred beans to leaves. I rebelled against the lukewarm, flavorless bedtime tea of my childhood by drinking the strongest coffee I could find. What I found waiting for me on the shin-high rectangular table in the school’s fully furnished loft was a viscous, heady tar the color of skunk shit that set my veins on fire and relocated the auditorium echo of my heartbeat to a place between my temples. It tasted as if the devil himself had been blazing up until sunrise and capped off the night’s bacchanalianism by squatting over a coffee pot. My body hummed with exquisite potency as a hooded figure entered to my left and sat down awkwardly at the table across from me.

Neither an introduction nor tact were on offer that evening: “You are very serious and boring. This elixir will change that.” The rim of my bone-white mug hovered inches from my lips. I stared blankly through my prescription glasses into the folds of the rough woolen robe opposite me and saw nothing. There was no movement as he continued: “Take this pistol and dispatch the rider who will appear on the southern shore three hours hence.” A lacquer-handled black revolver appeared from an overly long sleeve and went directly into my waistband. Thereafter, silence – not even the ticking of a clock’s hand in the background. My interlocutor’s death warrant was trailed by a wake of peaceful stillness.

“He appears once a year when the fornication of mortals is at its filthiest. The…coffee…is needed to see him, especially by a soul with a disposition so disagreeable.” An audible in-breath. “I smell it on you.” Frowning, I took another drink from my cup and felt as if my body had suddenly decided to shed its skin. The figure moved ever so slightly. “You are ready. In return for this favor, I will leverage my control over the spirits of the living and see to it that your love is requited by anyone you wish. Simply come to my side and whisper their name into my ear.”

I stood up carefully with saucer and cup in hand by pressing the outer arches of my feet against the floor. My office shoes drummed softly against the old wood that carried their weight. The fabric of my black slacks tautened against my left knee as I knelt down and whispered: “Shani.

An almost imperceptible nod. “Return to me when you have completed your task and your love shall endure until your weary body comes to rest.” And then, as disjointedly as he had seated himself, the figure rose. He padded without sound to the top of the stairs and descended out of sight. The pleasant quiet returned.


Presently, the coffee took full effect. The bones of my body hummed as if struck by a tuning fork. I meditated in silent bliss for nearly three hours before departing the attic for the southern shore where the lighthouse meets the sea. A full moon hung low in the starry sky as I made my way down rolling, sandy hills. When I arrived at the concrete pier that overlooks the tower’s lonely beacon, I found myself gazing thoughtlessly at the intoxicating luminescence reflected by the night ocean. Transfixed, I crossed my arms and opened my mouth slightly as I waited for Jack’s bane to enter stage right and submit to a bullet between the eyes.

Shortly, a chill breeze flattened my hooded sweatshirt against my breasts and crawled across my face with icy fingers. A sing-song nursery rhyme whispered its way into my ears:

Saccharine stillness
In the land of the dead
A bucket of treats
For the price of your head

There, beneath the water tower, sat a skull-masked rider atop a horse the color of blackest night with eyes like glowing embers that were painful to look at. The pale moon cast a wretched shadow across the beaked end of the rider’s facade. He inclined his head ever so slightly in my direction and I clutched my chest in pain. A volcano erupted in my rib cage. I cried out in agony as my stomach expanded uncomfortably. My hand reached reflexively for the pistol that was now grating against my spine. White-hot lightning arced through my back as the gun left its waistband holster. With my left hand fiercely clutching the fabric of my shirt and hoodie, I rounded the revolver on the rider’s lifeless face, took aim at a spot between the sockets of his bone mask, and used every bit of strength I could muster from the right-hand side of my body to pull the trigger.

I remember looking up at the night sky with vomit on my chin and blood pooling around the back of my head.

To my left the sounds of the amusement park’s roller coaster screaming a violent symphony of steel and wood. To my right the ocean’s spray soaking my clothing as wave after wave of piss-scented water roared past the shore and up onto the stone slab that had received my fragile body with dispassion. It was here that I was going to die. I closed my eyes and prepared to fade into the inevitable.


Bright, piercing light rushes toward me. I extend one hand toward the center of it feebly. The brilliance of the background diffuses and is replaced by the sterile white walls of a hospital room. A thin, cream-colored blanket covers my body. A needle has been inserted into my left arm. The tubing is held in place with medical tape. My right hand caresses the angular cheekbone of a strong, rugged face framed by a tied bun of short, thickly braided hair. Shani returns my gaze evenly. Her right hand rests on my shoulder reassuringly. I pull gently on the back of her neck. She leans closer.

“You’re a good person,” I whisper, and place my lips softly on her cheek. She pauses, then kisses me briefly on the forehead before standing back up and taking my right hand in her left. “You need to rest now,” she says, caressing my knuckles with her thumb. I smile and drift off into sleep.

I did not expect to wake, so the opening of my eyes came as quite a shock. I bolted upright into a sitting position with such force that my battered body’s pained breathing could not keep up. I sucked in air with a loud, howling gasp. In front of me, I heard the sound of glass shattering and a half-hearted curse. “Oh my gosh, ma’am!” called a boyish tenor from my right. “Are you all right?”

The sheriff and her deputy appeared on both sides of my makeshift cot and guided my head back to its pillow with steady hands. I stared at the cool grey ceiling of the police station as their faces appeared above me. Helen, the experienced veteran, and Andy, her fresh-faced deputy. Just like in the TV shows. The worried creases in Andy’s forehead brought the word dapper to mind.

“I’m sorry about your coffee,” I croaked.

“Oh, honey,” said Helen with more compassion in her voice than on her weathered face. “Coffee can be replaced. You can’t.” Andy looked at Helen for a moment, then back to me. I was in too much pain to chuckle at his charming innocence. “Say, ma’am – we found you way out by the lighthouse near the Franklin mansion. What the heck were you doing out there?” Helen frowned and waved her hand dismissively. “Let her rest,” she chided. Andy took a step back. “Oh, gosh. I’m sorry, ma’am.”

Helen looked at me calmly. “We’re still working the crime scene. It appears that you were ambushed by a lone assailant. We have a suspect but all of our leads are coming up dead ends. Name is Jack Lambert. He seems to have vanished into thin air and taken any useful evidence with him.”

I opened my mouth to speak but before anything could make it through the filter of phlegm that guarded my voice box, Andy began to converse animatedly.

“You know, it just occurred to me that Jack Lambert sounds a lot like Jack O’Lantern,” he volunteered. Helen sighed and crossed her arms as she rounded and walked a slow, knowing gait back to her desk. Andy didn’t appear to notice. “Around this time of year, Halloween, that is, my Nanna – my grandma – used to tell us all kinds of stories about Jack and how he would play tricks on everyone. They said he’d go after anyone, especially the big-shots who thought they were too good for tricks. He’d make business propositions to them, stuff that sounded like there’s no way it could be a trick. That just meant that it was a really good trick.”

I humored him. His story seemed harmless enough. “What about the rider?” I rasped.

“The rider, yeah. I heard Miss Rogêt, you know, what the fortune-telling lady calls herself, talking about that, and she said that Jack has a more serious cousin that rides a fiery-eyed horse around in the underworld. He doesn’t like to play tricks like Jack does on account of he’s so serious, but he’s just as angry at mortals for condemning him to roam the land of the dead for all but one night of the year, so he goes along with his cousin’s pranks.”

I settled my head back into the cushioned recesses of my pillow in a vain attempt to make it harder to hear Andy’s Bedtime Stories for Naughty Children. Apparently he interpreted my reluctance as worry, as he immediately returned to my side and placed a comforting hand on my left shoulder. I feigned a pained grimace. No luck.

“Well, at least they’ll be asleep for another year now,” he reassured me with the cutest, dumbest smile I had ever seen. Andy strode back to his bar stool perch near the windows of the police station as if he were a victorious arena gladiator approaching Caesar for the final verdict.

As I watched him walk, I got to thinking that the Devil’s Own Coffee had been some pretty powerful stuff, all right. Combined with sleep deprivation, it’s possible that I saw things. A “gun” that did nothing more than create enough force to knock someone back. A dream in which my subconscious generated movies for me to watch based on recent events in the waking world.

Nonsense – there’s no way that it was all a set up. Right? Andy raised a pair of binoculars to his eyes and started scanning the width of the window pane in front of him.

“Yeah, Andy, this Jack O’Lantern and Mr. Black Stallion of yours might very well be asleep until next Halloween,” offered Helen gamely. “But you wouldn’t know it from looking at this town.” She glared disdainfully at the back of Andy’s head. “Or the people in it.”

If I hadn’t been too tired to talk, I would have voiced agreement. I didn’t feel as if I knew anything more about reality now than when I had first arrived. Given the company I kept, perhaps it was better that way.

Tokyo Blues

“Shush,” says Zoe before I finish my sentence. I’m in the middle of asking her about some of the eerier spirits lurking in the side streets of Tokyo – parents who melted into liquid filth when the bomb hit and left their children orphans – when I’m met with an abrupt wave of the hand that brings my mouth to a standstill.

“How long have you been doing this, Lily? Do you still shit your pants every time a bunch of filth-crazed mutants run at you? Idiot.”

I really like Zoe. She’s a fellow Dragon who’s been doing this for at least twice as long as I have. Either she’s got a blunt personality or she’s been in the field for so long that she no longer has the patience for niceties. She’s also very, very attractive, so it doesn’t bother me much when she ends our conversation by telling me to fuck off.

I’ve been on the lam for six months now which in practical terms means nothing seeing as how I’ve become so powerful that anyone looking to collect on my capture has simply stopped trying. Maybe the fact that I’ve been wearing the same clothes for the past two years says something about the way I see myself. Namely, that I’m blind to my own transformation. On a lark, I decide to hit up Daimon Kiyota for an update on the world-wide situation.

I know there’s nothing new to report and the look on Daimon’s face when I walk into his office tells me that he knows I know there’s nothing new. This swanky swell sees right through me.

“You’re all wet, baby. Those cheaters on your chassis aren’t helping you see the Big Six Picture. Now, this cat isn’t beating his gums just to get you in the struggle buggy and take you for a ride, you dig? No, no, no, Mrs. Grundy – I’ve seen you when you hit on all sixes, so let me level with you: put some color in that bluenose. You’re a deb doll who acts like a fish in a wet blanket when you could be a real live wire. It’s high time you started strutting like a fence-swinger.”

And with that, he turns right back around and hums to himself while eyeballing the ever-changing, never-ending light show of the pachinko machines in the parlor below. It’s the least he’s ever said to me. In other words: scram.

It makes perfect sense. Well, it does after I look it up on the internet. Normally I don’t bother trying to understand what Daimon is actually saying – I figure he makes a habit of riffing off whatever chaos theory theme is swimming around in his head. Somewhere in the jungle of prose I pick up on the Cliff’s Notes: do this, obtain this, go here. Those are the most important things, usually.

This time, though, I parsed his jive: you’re a bearcat, moll. Now get a wiggle on and don’t take any wooden nickels, you dig? Yeah, you dig.

Postcards from Tokyo

I write this on a tablet as I half-doze on a tatami mat in one of the back rooms of Susanoo’s Diner. I’ve concluded business in Tokyo. Daimon Kiyota’s running the show now. His quirkiness rubs me the wrong way but the other day he did a flawless version of the moonwalk that made me like him just a little bit – until he stepped away to call in a favor for a life he had saved: he instructed the party at the other end to wait until three in the morning, count to 61, and throw a half-empty bottle of whiskey out the sixth-story window of a building.

I’m no good at being a Dragon. I still don’t understand chaos theory.

I do, however, understand the aesthetic of this place, which is why I’ve made it my home for the time being.

QBL News has branded me a terrorist. I’m supposed to be lying low in the limelight. There’s no need. The only people left in this part of the city who are still in possession of their faculties are in my debt, big time. I’ve ingratiated myself with the demon-hunting Jingu and their arch-enemies, the demons of the House in Exile led by Inbeda the Fierce, Inbeda the Mighty, Inbeda who worships Kirsten Geary as a goddess and populates his bathhouse with mannequins in her likeness.

The demons and the demon hunters live a few blocks away from each other. I suspect that’s the cause of and solution to many of their problems.

I investigated the source of strange tremors in the City of the Sun God. The cultists were behind them, as they are behind everything in this area. My dear Shani and her Marya don’t seem to be making much progress on that front. The destruction of the Atenist raison d’être does not seem to have sated the cultists’ blood lust or shaken their conviction. As part of my “research project,” I revisited a jinn named Amir whose contempt for me was once again expressed with the sort of honeyed grandeur that only an ancient being made of fire can reasonably pull off without sounding overly cathartic.

“The perverse will be used as firewood in Hell!” Easily my favorite line.

Amir is but a bit player as he is only made of one element. The rumblings turned out to be the product of the Unbound, a jinn made out of all four elements and therefore much more powerful. The tremors are the manifestation of his anger on this earth. I was tasked with entering the pyramid that housed his prison and subduing him, both of which I accomplished in a reasonable amount of time and without unnecessary difficulty.

Back in Tokyo, I then took on the less glamorous tasks of running Kiyota’s protection racket for him and robbing a bank manned by infuriatingly astute security droids. Once finished, I returned to Gozen’s diner and sat down to a bowl of noodles, a cup of coffee (which I’ve grown to like more than tea), and a manga book about chibi-children who save the world by planting sakura trees. I can’t really tell where the line between reality and fantasy is drawn after all that’s transpired.

They tell me now that my help is needed in field operations with other agents. We’ll see about that. I’m going to take a nice long nap, first.


Daimon Kiyota is a man of many words and little tact who wears loud suits that are only surpassed by the volume of his voice. He runs a pachinko parlor in the heart of downtown Tokyo. “Let’s laugh in the face of chaos,” he says. His office, in contrast to his sentiments, is nice and orderly; I wouldn’t mind spending time there as long as I didn’t have to listen to him prattle on in his 1920s speakeasy vocabulary that he picked up from his great-great-grandfather who spent time with gangsters in Detroit and brought their smooth moves and fast-talking back to the old country. I could also do without his corny come-on attempts.

The strange thing is, I’ve never actually heard him speak Japanese. (His English is delightfully novel, just not something you want to listen to all the time.) For all I know, that high-pitched, nasal rambling of his might turn into deep-throated baritone power chords when he decides to turn his native language on. I’m guessing not, though, given what I’ve gleaned of his style. If the fabulously dressed women he’s chosen to guard the front of his parlor are any indication, his Japanese must be even more interesting than his English. I’ve no doubt that he could pun a geisha into oblivion.


There are some people in this world that positively ooze life and vitality, which is why I find it wasteful to have someone like Kiyota running a racket like this. There must be more to it, of course. I’ll find out soon enough – Daimon’s faction, whatever that represents, has thrown in its lot with the Dragon. Sow the seeds of chaos, laugh in the face of certain death, all that nonsense. The Jingu clan, headed by Gozen of Susanoo’s Diner, have sided with the Templars. (Why not? They’re both on an epic quest to rid the world of evil.) Inbeda’s wicked band of naughty, hedonistic demons engage in contract killing for profit, so naturally they’ve turned to the Illuminati.

I’ve never cared much for money despite being raised by parents for whom finances came after health and were on roughly the same level as education. There were no epic quests in our household, however, since I wasn’t doctor or lawyer material and further children were not part of the plan. Hence, you could say that the sum of my ambitions was roughly nil. I just wanted to live a nice quiet, secure, peaceful life in uninteresting times in a place where nothing much ever happened. (I’m not doing very well in the career goals department thus far.)

Which is why I don’t think Daimon and I would ever hit it off. Opposites attract? No. Yin and Yang? Hell no. I’m like water – I fill whatever vessel I’m poured into. Daimon, on the other hand, is snake oil: saccharine, luscious, full-bodied snake oil that slithers its way into your veins and sends you to a poisonous death with a smile on your face. He’s also a very interesting man who attracts all sorts of attention. Boisterous, noisy attention, the type you find downstairs in his pachinko machines.

Oil and water don’t mix, so our chances of getting together are roughly zero.


I’m thinking whoever was responsible for the architecture in these most recent missions was a person who just said “Yes!” to everything without really putting much thought into it.

“Should we include red lasers of instant death?”


“How about razor wire that shoots out of the wall at periodic intervals? I’ve got an engineering team just itching to try out their latest design.”

“Sure, sounds great!”

“Oh, and how about an Indiana Jones-style boulder that rolls down staircases you’re trying to climb?”

“Absolutely! You know what? Why don’t we put two of them in there? I bet nobody else has ever thought of that.”

This…this is why I hired you.”

It must have been a fairly lucrative contract when all was said and done. It’s just too bad that it didn’t work out the way they intended. I’ll skip the details about the self-collapsing bridges and somewhat more…exotic trappings that briefly prevented me from confronting and slaying a seven-toed demon.

I met the engineering team’s handiwork again at the local Hyakumonogatari (“One Hundred Tales”) apartments. This time they had spilled water all over the place and electrified it. I sense tripwires and landmines in my future. I’m not psychic, I’ve just lived life. I’m writing this entry on my phone while hanging out in the lobby. I’m hesitating, but I’ll eventually go and do it, just as I did at the dig site in Egypt.

“Want some noodles before you go?” Samurai guy asked me as I was preparing to head out the door of Susanoo’s Diner. I thought a moment before saying “yes.” I was then handed a bowl of steaming hot ramen with fairly hefty chunks of beef in it. At home we use meat sparingly in our dishes; I didn’t relish the thought of looking like a dog trying to tear the stuff apart with my teeth.


“I put meat in your ramen to give you enough stamina to take on those demons!” Samurai man said with a gruffness that somehow complemented the smile hidden on his hairy face. I bowed my head slightly and sat down at the bar next to a patron who was occupied with their alcoholic thoughts. I didn’t want to get a sore back from sitting on the floor.

The noodles were good. So was the beef. I don’t eat a lot of meat, but I have nothing against it. I could feel it in my intestines as I got up from my seat and excused myself to the restroom. Samurai guy had previously told me that I’d get free noodles for life if I came back from my encounter with Ibaraki in one piece. I did, and he meant it, so I was more than happy to say “yes” to free food.

And that’s what I’ve found to be my greatest source of inspiration for reflection in these diary entries: living life by saying “yes” to it without regard for the multiplicity of “no”s floating about both within myself and out there in the world. I like to think of living as my way of sticking it to dark times and dark thoughts.


Once upon a time I thought I would take the plunge and do what other young people like me had done and travel the world while teaching English. The most popular destinations were Korea and Japan; you could also make fabulous money teaching in Saudi Arabia as long as you were willing to spend most of your free time – actually, all of it – on the sponsor company’s compound. Being the bookworm that I am, I spent my summer days doing lots of research on potential host schools instead of relaxing with a nice glass of lemonade on the beach and dozing the midday away.

I quickly ran into horror stories told by the participants associated with various programs. Many of them seemed to stem from acting as if they were still in the United States rather than adapting to the local culture. One young man told of trying to cross a busy Seoul street between the back of a car and the front of a bus; the bus driver inched forward so that there was no space between his front bumper and the car’s rear bumper. “I couldn’t cross,” the poor young fellow wrote. “He had an angry look on his face. I think Korean people are mean to foreigners in general.”

Woe betide the party boys and girls who show up drunk for every staff meeting and don’t cross the street using the marked intersections required by law. I wondered to myself whether “james0728” had ever thought to research his destination before heading off in search of good times, a paycheck, and probably a local girlfriend. At the very least, he could have been considerate enough to not generalize the behaviors of an entire nation of people based on the actions of one bus driver who may very well have been sick of seeing all these young American kids crossing the street wherever they pleased without checking for oncoming traffic. Perhaps he had been incensed by the news of American soldiers who had run over two young girls walking home from school in their military vehicle because they weren’t paying attention. Or it could be that a tourist had just gotten on the bus and didn’t pay the fare despite being told several times that this was a requirement for riding the bus. “I don’t speak Korean,” is the common refrain. To which I stick my tongue out and make farting noises.


You don’t need to speak the language to know these things. I’m sure there are more genteel responses. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with people in rather dire circumstances for whom (most of them, anyways) the fear of strangers is washed away by the presence of an invincible superhero armed with bee magic. If the world weren’t in the throes of a global filth epidemic I’m sure there’d be more time to think about all the cultural differences that exist the second someone who doesn’t look like me and doesn’t speak my language shows up. Filth: the ties that bind us.

At the very least, though, I’ve researched my mission destinations well enough to behave in a way that is understood by the locals. I typically don’t stick around long enough to become fluent in the language beyond conversational basics. I didn’t have to worry about this when I met with Inbeda, head of the House in Exile – demons who got kicked out of hell – and communicated with him in his bathhouse resort through an ancient mask that was fluent in every language ever. He had a penchant for human females and told me several times that he wouldn’t mind at all if I wanted to remove my clothes and relax in the onsen. He (it?) even offered to scrub my back for me. No xenophobia there, not even between species.


When I returned to Gozen to deliver the mission’s tangibles, I touched my right arm lightly with my left hand as a gesture of respect I had picked up in Korea – elders are given items with both hands. As I did so, I thought back to a time when I had been invited to my friend Thuyên’s house for breakfast. They were having bún riêu, a popular morning meal, and I was asked to help serve. I had inquired about the ages of the relatives present beforehand and made sure to serve the person with the most seniority within the various birth orders that were present in the extended family. I didn’t need to be familiar with the multiplicity of Vietnamese terms for the myriad aunts and uncles that were there – I just needed to know who was number one, number two, etc. Never mind that among my relatives we’re much more liberal about these things. It wasn’t relevant in the context. What was relevant? Research. (Do I sound like a nerd?)

It’s the sum of all these small things that would have made life less difficult for people like james0728 and his compatriots. He might have even come to the realization – if he had put enough effort into thinking about it – that for every apparent cultural difference, there’s usually a similarity that goes unnoticed because we’re too wrapped up in cultural exoticism. “Write a paper on all the differences between North Korea and South Korea!” says the young Californian English teacher to his South Korean student. The student groans after the phone is hung up and dutifully writes a laundry list of everything he can come up with to satiate his instructor’s lust for information on the “hermit kingdom.”

You know what they have in common, though? They have the same blood. Same with me and my Taiwanese friend Ting Ting. That one’s pretty important. That’s why when I go into these places expecting the unfamiliar, I’m already armed with something that’s only slightly less important than my sword and my assault rifle: knowledge of what’s expected, and the places where our seemingly vastly different behaviors find common ground in the shared experience of being human.