a sailor’s story

evening in a’tolan. i go out to the main street in search of food. a typhoon has just passed through, giving us a break from the heat of late june. as i step toward the door of the noodle and stinky tofu stand, K, one of my “big brothers” from lakancun, calls me over. he’s there with his wife and two friends who live over in dongho. it’s the birthday of one of the friends, and they are having a small party

“come and sit down! don’t be so polite, maan ko kangodoan, o ngay’ay widang kita, we are all friends!”

i’m a little reluctant to intrude on the party, but they insist. my noodles and baked tofu come over, along with a couple of bottles of taiwan gold label. we talk for a bit, his friend asking what are perhaps questions a bit too personal for the first time one meets. something between wanting to shift the conversation away from me and realizing the appropriate time for a good story causes K to put down his glass and insert an intriguing statement

“when i was in singapore, i went home with a transexual,” he says

“really?” I say. his wife laughs and tells us all to drink a bit before the story begins. K began to work in the far ocean fishing trade not long after graduating from middle school, when he was 17. signing on to the boats for three year stints, he has been just about everywhere in southeast asia and has also visited argentina, south africa, new zealand, and australia. the money was good; he arranged to have most of his wages sent directly home to his mother who, like many engaged in the far ocean fishing trade, used the money to build a house

“yes, when we put into singapore.” K is a good enough storyteller to draw the time out a little.

“when we got to singapore, one of my coworkers on the boat who had been there before said that we should go to a particular district to drink. the bars there served beer in big wooden tubs! so we were drinking draft beer from these giant tubs, and i saw a girl. she was really beautiful, i thought. she was, it wasn’t just because i was drinking

“in that part of singapore, they don’t have hotels or anything. if you meet in the bar, you figure out how to go home. so we went to their place, it was the place where she lived. she told me to take a shower. after i came out from the shower, it was her turn. i noticed that she didn’t face me at all when she was undressing. she kept her back or her buttocks facing me all of the time”

“ah, really? what was a matter?”

“yes. she had a towel around her, but no top. i could see her cu cu but she had a towel around her waist, and when she got close to me, she kind of sided in, with her legs closed and her buttocks facing me

“i thought that it was kind of strange; after all, she had just taken a shower and we both knew why i was there. so i pulled the towel away and saw–she had something down there! she was a he!”

“ooh. what did you do?”

“‘sorry!’ i said

“then i gathered up my clothes, pulled my pants on, and ran out of there.”

“poor thing! you broke her heart! you should have stayed and tried it out…”

“well, i did go to the bar and apologize the next day. at least i paid for her time. i said, ‘sorry, i am not really into that.’ but she was really beautiful! i was fooled!”

his wife laughs. i wonder what she thinks about such ribald stories. she says that life on the boats was hard. we cannot really know how tiring and dangerous the work was, besides, what it would be like to be on the boat for a few months before coming into harbor. it’s natural that they would be a little crazy when they came into port–and besides, this is a kind of knowledge of the world outside, isn’t it?

part of what makes the story a good one is not just the humor of encountering a transvestite unawares. it’s also the quality of knowledge of the outside world that the story demonstrates, and that is one value of ‘amis masculinity. if the far ocean fishing trade fit ‘amis notions of what men should do–they should go out and provide the means to build and maintain a loma’ (house, meaning both the people and the physical structure)–it also is consistent with qualities of having powerful knowledge and the ability to speak, without which men cannot be recognized within the community. i wonder whether it is possible to think of sailor’s stories within these terms, the better to think of the agency of men who otherwise appear victims of the cash economy and state programs of development

**lakancun. in a’tolan, as in many ‘amis towns, men enter an age set when they come of age. the age sets, which form every five years, move upward through the age grade organization and are named for important events in the town or country. members of lakancun are generally in their mid to late 40s

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