In the spring of 2016, I was living in New York City. I had just returned from reporting on January 2016 elections in Taiwan. I remember that was around the time of the Peter Liang case, which I also reported on. By that point I should have been done with my MA, but due to issues with my advisor, I spent the next half year living in New York City in a strange limbo—technically I’d already finished my degree, but it wasn’t clear if I would be allowed to graduate or if I would have to drop out.
Many of my friends at the time were Taiwanese expats also living in New York City, mostly fellow grad students who, like me, were involved in social activism. After the Sunflower Movement in 2014, Taiwanese young people started forming groups across the world, originally to organize solidarity efforts overseas; subsequently many of these efforts developed into activist groups. I hung out frequently with people from one of these groups.
In late February, around the time of the February 28th anniversary of the 1947 “228 Massacre”—the start of the decades-long White Terror in Taiwan—we were planning a dinner event to discuss its history. Jen, a student from a Hong Kong activist group that had formed in New York City after the Umbrella Movement, and who often hung out with us Taiwanese folks, messaged me suddenly.
“Hey, is Chris alright? He’s been posting some strange things on Facebook recently.”
Chris was one of our group. He had always been a bit off kilter, I thought, but he was funny. He was a stoner pothead artist. With talk of Taiwan potentially being the first country in Asia to legalize gay marriage (as indeed it became), he talked a lot about the need to make Taiwan the first country in Asia to legalize marijuana. Chris was what I’d call “kiang” (狂)—what we say in Taiwanese to describe someone who crazy, out of control, or on drugs. That just seemed to be his personality.
He ran a Facebook page which produced strange pro-marijuana legalization memes. I remember the banner image for several months was an image of me with my face cut out holding a sign which read, “I support Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen legalizing marijuana” (he had handed the sign to me and abruptly snapped a photo, before I could react, at a protest some months prior.)
“Is something strange?” I responded to Jen. “Beyond the usual?”
“Take a look at his videos?”
I did. In one of the first I saw Chris stabbing a metal soda bottle over and over again with a knife. As he did so, he talked about wanting to kill his stepfather and boss. About wanting to die and taking those he hated with him.
I looked at his Facebook timeline, and found post after post about killing his stepfather and old boss, tagging his old boss directly on Facebook. Videos of him walking around New York City carrying a knife. Videos of him walking into old workplaces, mostly restaurants, and screaming at the staff and knocking dishes to the floor. It was remarkable to me that nobody had called the police on him yet.
Suddenly I realized I hadn’t been paying enough attention to Chris’s behavior. What I’d previously thought was funny, or perhaps some kind of strange, bohemian artistic persona, now seemed alarming. I felt ashamed of myself for having laughed him off, for not having noticed earlier.
“Okay,” I said. “Let me talk to Ah-Liang. Maybe he’ll know something.” Ah-Liang was another artist, part of the same group. He was closer with Chris.
Ah-Liang agreed that something was wrong. We decided to make a Facebook chat group, “Safety/Mental Health Concern with Chris,” to which we added Jen and a couple of others from our Taiwanese activist group. That was the start of a strange series of events over the next month, by the end of which the chatroom would host more than 10,000 messages.
Chris had been making a twisted use of leftist discourse to justify his murder threats. He talked of killing his stepfather in the name of feminism, and killing his boss in the name of Marxism. Since we were the known radicals in the overseas Taiwanese political scene, we seemed to be the source of a lot of his theoretical justifications from.
I wonder if that contributed to us feeling a sense of responsibility for him. At least, it did for me.
We decided that it too dangerous to let Chris attend the 228 Massacre dinner: We would do a bait and switch. We would tell everyone else coming that the original restaurant, Saigon Market by Union Square, was full and that we would be switching to a different location by St. Mark’s, while Ah-Liang and I would get to the Saigon Market early, redirect anyone who came to Saigon Market, then intercept Chris and try to somehow drag him back to his home in Flushing, where he still lived with his parents. We might try and talk to his parents. It helped that Chris was perennially late to everything, anyway.
Ah-Liang and I stood outside of Saigon Market for two hours redirecting people to the new location. Finally, Chris showed—along with another member who was planning on attending the dinner. Ah-Liang managed to occupy Chris’s attention while I redirected the other group member to the new location. I still find it a bit amusing that Chris didn’t recognize someone he knew standing ten feet away from him, and vice-versa. That really saved us.
We took Chris into Saigon Market to get dinner, where I remember Chris ordered chicken. When it arrived, he stabbed at it forcefully—so forcefully that it nearly flew off his plate and the table rattled.
“We were just wondering…” Ah-Liang began diplomatically. “Are you alright?”
“My mother and father…!” Chris practically shouted. He started ranting that his parents were Kuomintang, that they were members of the bourgeoisie. That they didn’t want him to have his freedom, though he was close to thirty. That his old boss—a wealthy Taiwanese businessman well-respected in the community—owed him 100 USD and that he was exploitative of his Chinese workers. That he hadn’t been going home, that he had been sleeping outside and been fighting with homeless people on the streets.
It was a lot to take in. It sounded like he was on drugs, but was it really that possible to get so worked up on just pot? He often talked about being unable to find psychedelics in New York City, so I thought it was just pot. I wondered… was reefer madness a real thing?
We managed to get Chris home in a taxi that we paid for. We played with his dog for a while and when his mother came back from work, she slipped us her phone number when Chris wasn’t paying attention.
Things looked positive over the next few days. Ah-Liang called the mother, who promised that she would find help for Chris. Chris already had a psychiatrist, but Ah-Liang gathered that he’d been neglecting to take his medication, hence his recent behavior.
Chris’s old boss did inform the police that Chris was making death threats against him and his family, but despite Chris’s animus, the old boss actually seemed to quite like him, and, strangely enough, evinced rather a chill attitude about the situation. He’d even been by Chris’s house to see if he might talk with Chris’s parents, but they were never home.
About a week later I was trying to rearrange my thesis into something that I hoped would convince my advisor to stop trying to gaslight me into thinking I was intellectually incompetent, and allow me to graduate, when a bombshell hit.
“Guys,” said Ah-Liang in our chatroom. “Chris is on a plane. His parents are sending him back to Taiwan.” He told us to check his Facebook.
The heck? I raced to Chris’s timeline. An update about getting on a plane to head back to Taiwan within the next hour. Before that, the same continual death threats. Something about bringing pot back to Taiwan. All of it seemed quite incoherent.
“These fucking parents,” I wrote the group. Whenever we’d followed up with Chris’s mother about taking him to see a psychiatrist, she’d seemed to be dragging her feet. Apparently, the parents had decided that they didn’t want to deal with this problem in America, or even with the fact that Chris potentially faced legal charges from police in America. They’d decided just to pack him off to Taiwan.
Did they think that if they just pretended if these problems didn’t exist, they would go away?
We had an emergency conference call.
“What do we do?” I said. “Will he be a threat to the other people on the plane?”
“I don’t know, guys,” said Ah-Liang. “Maybe we should let it go… Is there anything else we can do?” I could tell from his tone of voice that it was difficult for him to say that.
“No,” said Xiao-mai, another one of our group. “You can get jailed for seven years from trying to bring pot into Taiwan. We have to get him off that plane.”
“Okay,” I said. My mind was made up, with this terrible sort of clarity. “I’ll call Chris, I’ll try to figure out which plane he’s on, which airline, and the destination in Taiwan. I’ll type all of that into the chatroom and someone call 911 with that information.”
Frankly speaking, since that was around the time of Black Lives Matter, we weren’t too happy to call the police to take care of a mental health matter—particularly since Chris was making violent threats and we were afraid that the police might also react to him violently. But what other option did we have?
I called Chris. Yep, from his tone of voice, he was definitely drugged out, or at least not in a right state of mind.
Chris was initially on his guard. His parents had told him that his friends were out to get him, that we were the source of these issues he was having. Were we out to harm him? I told him: “Of course not. Weren’t you thinking your parents were the ones out to get you just a few days ago?”
I managed to convince him to tell me the destination of the flight by claiming that I wanted to visit him. I confirmed that he was, in fact, carrying pot on him. I even managed to persuade him to tell me what seat number he was in by mentioning the relative advantages and disadvantages of aisle seats versus window seats and some nonsense about numerology and whether his seat number might be a lucky number. As he told me all this, I typed it into the chatroom, while the others did the detective work of figuring out which flight he was on.
Then I heard a voice in English and the call suddenly cut off. I texted Chris as to what had happened. He responded a short while later by text saying that he had been taken off the plane, that he was in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. Nothing after that.
So we’d made it. He had been pulled off the flight at 12:35 AM, exactly five minutes before the plane was originally scheduled to take off at 12:40 AM. We had cost his family a seven hundred or eight hundred dollar plane ticket, I thought.
But which hospital was he in? We needed to make sure that the psychiatrists knew the entire situation, that Chris had been making violent threats, and that they absolutely could not trust the parents, that the parents were trying to downplay these issues, and would want to get him out of there as soon as possible, even without treatment. Chris’s English wasn’t the best, se they’d need to find someone able to speak Mandarin. Chris didn’t seem to be Taiwanese-dominant and we probably wouldn’t have been able to find a mental health professional able to speak Taiwanese anyway.
We tried a few hospitals before we found him. I called and managed to get in touch with the responsible doctor, saying that I was the person who had called 911 to get Chris dragged off the plane.
The doctor was suspicious. “His parents are saying that it’s you, the friends who are the ones causing all these issues.”
“Look,” I said. “You should know how it is. Asian parents try to pretend that these issues don’t exist and hope they’ll just go away. Of course, they’re going to blame us for trying to corrupt him.” I felt somewhat stupid as I said all this. No, this doctor wouldn’t understand.
I volunteered that I had footage of the threats that Chris was making that I had recorded on my laptop, to make him realize the seriousness of the situation. Although it was around 2 or 3 AM and the hospital was in Queens and I was living in Harlem, I volunteered to bring my laptop to the hospital. The doctor didn’t seem interested in the slightest. Nor did he seem to be taking me all that seriously.
Finally, I lost my temper. “Dammit,” I said. “Do you want me to just go to your hospital, occupy the lobby, and refuse to leave until you see all this?” It sounded like a threat, and he was taken aback. But eventually the doctor promised that he would call me with updates, and I got off the phone.
I stayed up all night in order to make sure that there would be no more sudden emergencies to deal with, fueled by a lot of instant coffee. I had told everyone else in the group to go to sleep and that I would stay up until they got up, so that we could always have someone on call.
The day after that we visited Chris in the hospital. He seemed more stable. We denied being the ones who had dragged him off the plane and, strangely, he seemed to believe us.
At one point, a doctor in the ward suddenly whirled around and stared at me—seeming to recognize my voice. No doubt it was that doctor. Our conversations as a group tended to have a lot of random English sentences and loanwords inserted into our Mandarin. I remember thinking that to avoid being recognized, it would be best to avoid any English terms, and keeping strictly to Mandarin. We asked the staffer responsible for Chris, a Chinese woman who seemed pretty well-equipped to deal with him, to keep us updated on his status.
But, well, after we left, no updates ever came from the hospital. We spent the next two weeks trying to figure out whether or not Chris had been discharged, since he seemed to have access to his cell phone at some points and at other points didn’t seem to.
He was still making death threats, and also making new social media accounts under strange pseudonyms to post new threats on Facebook and Instagram— one of these was themed after Malala Yousafzai, whom he seemed to admire. Once in a while we were able to catch hold of him to chat online, and at these times he claimed that he was being watched by police, gangsters, and men in white suits. We couldn’t tell whether he was in the hospital, at home, and whether police were genuinely keeping an eye on him, or whether it was all a paranoid delusion.
We tried to get a community elder to intervene and talk to Chris’s parents, but they were Kuomintang and most of the community elders we knew were from the pro-Taiwanese independence camp. At one point I even tried (unsuccessfully) to get my mother to talk to Chris’s mother. Being pro-independence, I have a lot of political disagreements with my family, so she didn’t take too kindly to that my reasoning on that point (“Well, his mother is Kuomintang and so are you, and so maybe she would be more willing to trust you… ?”)
Chris’s parents tried a second time to pack him onto a plane to send him back to Taiwan, but Chris wasn’t allowed to board because he was on a no-fly list. The parents had been previously informed that Chris would not be allowed to fly without a psychiatric evaluation, yet they tried it out anyway.
And then…nothing. Chris gradually seemed to get better, and we began to become less and less proactive about the issue.
It’s been three years at this point. I’ve only seen Chris a few times since then, most recently a few weeks ago in Taipei, when he showed up unexpectedly to help with clean-up for a space I’m opening up with friends. He seemed all right. I introduced him to my friends as “the most kiang person I know.” He laughed at that.
I still think about the incident from time to time. Even a place as multicultural as New York City, where there are subway signs in Chinese, and interpreters at polling stations during elections, mental health resources for non-native English speakers seem almost nonexistent. Nobody I spoke to back then seemed to understand what I was talking about with respect to the denial of mental illness in Asian cultures, and I hadn’t the slightest idea where to look for helpful resources. Any resource or institution I found which did seem helpful was usually legally constrained from doing anything unless the parents agreed to it. That wasn’t helpful, seeing as the parents were in denial the entire time.
The “adults” in my life then were generally telling me to let it go. I’ve had a lot of adults say that, whenever I have some friend intent on killing themselves. I’ve generally had enough of all these uncaring adults; I don’t think I can give up on others so easily.
People often tell me that I’m stubborn in my views. That I’m self-righteous. I seem to think the world is always wrong, and I’m always in the right. I guess that’s true. At the end of the day, if you were to take away the self-righteous part of me, the part of me that never stops to question whether I’m right or wrong, there might be nothing left.
Still, there have been a few times that I do still wonder, even years later, whether I was right. I might have been just egging on my friends with my narcissistic, highly self-righteous thinking.
There are a lot of damaged people in social activism. Many seem to be trying to exorcize their personal demons through participation in activism, which doesn’t tend to result in a very healthy environment, or in very healthy personal interactions between activists. There was a lot of talk of this after the Sunflower Movement in 2014, which left a lot of broken people in its wake.
Was it because I care that drove me to do so much regarding Chris—spending around a month in constant tension about his mental health issues? I seem to keep getting dragged into these mental health interventions even regarding people I barely know. As others get sucked in, I take on something like a leadership role, which I’m afraid might actually just be egging everyone on to more and more extreme action.
I’m still haunted by a comment on Facebook a few years ago which seems to be Vaguebooking about me: “There’s something to be said about the person who always seems to be leading a large group of people trying to save people, but never seems to save any of them.”
I suspect I may just be trying to convince myself I’m not a bad person; some of my relations with people I’m close with, or would like to be, end up being rather toxic, and I generally feel as though I’m the source of that toxicity. It’s all I can do look at myself in the mirror sometimes without feeling that what’s looking back at me is terribly repulsive. There are some days when I just lie in bed, don’t do anything else, and just wish I could make myself disappear. I realize there are people way worse than me, who seem to lack any sense of moral compass—say, Terry Gou of FoxConn infamy seems like a pretty bad guy. Or Han Kuo-yu, the current mayor of Kaohsiung, who is increasingly looking like he will be the next president of Taiwan. I can look at them and feel better about myself in the abstract, intellectually. But, for whatever reason, I just don’t feel that way.
Maybe I’m trying to make up for my personal failings through social activism, journalism, and other projects, as a way to try and make up for my lousy personality. In other words, activism and journalism are also just some sort of emotional crutch for me. It makes me feel quite inauthentic, frankly. But regardless of the deeper psychological motivations for my actions, call it being self-righteous or what have you, I still don’t think I’m wrong.
Maybe the thing I’m afraid of most in the world is self-proclaimed “normal” people, those who claim that they have no inner darkness. There’s nobody without an extremely fucked up side to them—only people who try to deny their inner darkness. That’s what truly scares me about people like Chris’s parents, people who would just try and just paper over their child’s inner demons. I think that it’s because of people like that that so many people, including friends of mine, are always wanting to kill themselves and, frankly, for that I can’t forgive them. It’s because we try and deny the existence of this darkness, instead of coming to terms with it, even making light of it, that we end up letting it devour us. I don’t think there’s anyone who truly likes every single part of themselves. There’s no such thing as a life without pain.
But I think what we can do is come to a self-conscious awareness of ourselves and our personal failings, and an acceptance of that part of you which is fucked up beyond repair. Since in many ways, that’s the truest, most authentic part of you, the only part of you guaranteed not to be superficial, shallow, supercilious or otherwise false.