“What’s more difficult? Gay marriage or ghost marriage?”
August 5, 2021
Editor’s Note: The following story by Hikaru Lee 李屏瑤 is part of a notebook Queer Time, co-edited by Ta-wei Chi and Ariel Chu, which gathers contemporary queer Taiwanese literature in translation. To read the full Queer Time collection, visit its home here.
To read Kittie Yang’s English translation, click here.
Centennial Harmony, Centennial Lilies1
The first step is always the hardest.
Lin Yating ponders for a long while before typing “Gina” as her profile alias. She’s not sure how she came up with “Gina.” Certainly nobody around her is named “Gina,” and her own face doesn’t look much like a “Gina” either. But the twenty-seven-year-old Lin Yating, wearing an overnight face mask and scrolling through a dating app at 3 AM, has decided in this inexpressible state of anonymity that she will, from now on, call herself “Gina.”
It must get a bit easier from here.
But it doesn’t, really. She stares at the blank space under “Interests,” her mind empty, and intuitively writes, “Unrequited love.” No, that’s not right. She hits backspace. Having been single for all her life, she is indeed very, very proficient in the art of unrequited love. If there were money to be made in one-sided love affairs, she would’ve become a Forbes Billionaire of Unrequited Love by now, relying on her pious approach of “one heart and one mind,” crushing on one person at a time. Great, she’s going off topic again. Quick, think of a hobby!
How about “reading”? But people nowadays don’t even read. Plus, people who share this interest might work in the same industry as her. Scratch that. What about “hiking?” It sounds appealing, but she goes hiking just about once a year. She could also put “foodie.” But what if she gets mistaken for an influencer, or worse, one of those social media butterflies who posts about every popular restaurant they visit?
Let’s go with a safe label instead. She writes, “Movies.” Fuck, that’s super average.
Yating descends into her late-night cycle of self-loathing until a notification appears on her phone. It’s a text from Joe: How come I haven’t swiped your profile yet??
Yating: I’m almost done. Stop rushing me! (crying emoji)
Joe: I’m too psyched! My thumb just slipped, and I accidentally sent a bunch of hearts. Come save me!
Joe sends Yating a photo of her cat, says that she can borrow it to jazz up her profile.
Finally, she makes it to the photo upload section. Reincarnated as Gina, Yating seems to have lost her senses. She practically has no photos of herself in her phone. Instead, it’s full of scooters. Like, pictures of literal scooters. Her apartment is surrounded by narrow alleyways, and she’ll simply get lost trying to find her parking spot if she doesn’t take pictures of where she last left her vehicle. Her album is chock-full of them—scooters from every imaginable angle. She half-loses her head frantically deleting all the photos.
Joe texts again: 100 points if you include a cat pic. For real.
She feels tempted by Joe’s words, but knows that posting someone else’s picture borders on deception. Instead, she selects a photo of her side profile taken at work and a landscape photo. The app prompts her to select one final picture, which practically leaves her with no other choice—she uploads Joe’s cat pic. Well, if she manages to get a better photo of herself, she’ll definitely swap it out. An emergency like this shouldn’t technically count as deception. At last, she hits “Confirm.”
Gina is officially online.
Even though her name is not Gina, and she doesn’t even own a cat.
When the app refreshes, approximately 100 users appear within a 3 km radius. She wouldn’t expect any less from Yonghe District, a satellite city of Taipei. Immediately, a notification dings, alerting her of the heart she just received. She assumes it’s from Joe, but it turns out to be a stranger with a cat for a profile pic. Scrolling through the user’s photos, she can’t find a single face. But having been around the block herself, Yating knows how it is. She sends a heart back. Embarking down this new path, she makes sure to leave a trail of hearts and spends all thirty that she just received as a newbie.
Soon, she scrolls to a familiar face: Joe’s portrait shows a beaming smile, her profile a vibrant standout amidst a blurry sea of profiles with anonymous cat pictures. Yating has no hearts left and instead sends Joe her inward appreciation. Another ding—she just received a heart from Joe.
Joe: Who’s GINA??? Hahahahahahahahahahahaha
Yating: Kindly use correct punctuation.
Yating: Please use the appropriate Chinese period “。” Don’t use the English one, slacker.
Okay, we’re all adults here, Yating reminds herself. No need to lose her cool. Their work is done for today; Gina will retire from the driver’s seat. Yating sets her alarm clock and heads to sleep.
Human nature is so damn weak. She’s now checking the app as regularly as she takes her three meals. Thanks to Big Joe.
At lunch, she waits for her colleagues to head to the bathroom before checking the dating app, which she muted when she arrived at the office. Although the app’s GPS system isn’t exactly accurate, she is still afraid to open it at work. After all, she’s heard horror stories from gay friends who matched with profiles that were exactly 0 meters away. Mystery revealed: the profiles belonged to neighbors from their buildings, just a short elevator ride away. You could get your lay straight from the supplier, and even go home to take a shower.
Many users emerge near her office with new side profile pictures, new cat faces, and new scenery photos. Since Yating refuses to shell out money buying hearts from the dating app, she decides to ration her daily quota. She permits herself to send 10 hearts at lunch, 10 at dinner, and another 10 before bed.
Now she’s beginning to initiate more conversations, be deliberate in her replies, and try her best to keep the conversation going. If she encounters a typo? Well, she’ll turn a blind eye for now.
But how does love actually begin?
That weekend, Yating brings Gina along to a matinée at the movies. She is the lone person watching an art film in the small theater. Toward the end of the film, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” begins to play as the heroine gazes at her tear-filled lover across the concert hall, struck with the realization that they may never meet again. Although gay marriage has just been legalized this year, Yating can’t help but cry her heart out. She assumed all along that there were other members in the audience, but realizing she is alone, she boldly lets out a few audible sobs. After leaving the theater, she finds a café, sits staring out the window, then returns home before the crowds pour in. Maybe that’s just how it goes, she thinks. She wants a full-blown, flaming love affair, but if she can’t have one, then it’s probably just her fate.
On a bright, sunny afternoon, the solitary bachelorette hangs her clothes up on the balcony, the happiest thing she can do for herself at that moment. Last night, she uploaded a film still as one of her profile pictures. Otherwise, she doesn’t update her posts much, because no one reads long posts anyway. But what’s a better place than a dating app to confess to a possibly non-existent audience, to cast a message in a bottle into the great unknown?
The next morning, she checks in at the theater for a second time. Again, she has the matinée all to herself.
This time, she can rewatch the love affair with omniscience, understanding everything that’s about to unfold. As she dries her tears before the lights come on, her phone buzzes. A user has responded to her post. She clicks on the profile: Kotoko. The page shows a post just updated yesterday, mentioning the same movie she just watched. Yating sends Kotoko a message, who replies within seconds. They carry on a pleasant conversation; she seems like a partner who matches Yating’s rhythm, who can keep the ball rolling with an enjoyable back and forth.
“How long do you talk to someone before deciding to meet?” she asks Joe through text the following week.
“You mean you haven’t even gone on a date yet?” Joe asks.
“I really don’t know what to do with you,,,,” Joe responds. “!!!。。。”
“I’m flabbergasted. No wonder your flirtationships never go anywhere.”
“It’s nervewracking to meet someone online. Should we add each other on Instagram or LINE first?”
“Why would you exchange something so personal from the get-go…” Joe adds a dumbfounded cat GIF.
“I don’t know the rules of the game. (head in hands)”
“Just go at. Your own. Pace.”
Late one night, Kotoko sends Yating a voice message wishing her good night. Yating reciprocates.
“You don’t sound like a Gina,” Kotoko immediately texts back.
“It’s a name I randomly came up with……Is it too late to change it?….My real name is quite…pedestrian.”
“My real name, it’s also very pedestrian. (handshake)”
The app freezes for a second. Yating restarts it and suddenly sees that Kotoko is 0 meters away. Great, a new bug in the app.
“Which district do you live in? Yonghe or Zhonghe?” Yating asks.
“Just on the border between both.”
“That’s pretty close to me. If you’re free this weekend, do you want to meet up?” In the name of Gina, Yating grits her teeth and hits send. She quickly adds, “The book I mentioned last time is out now… I can give you a copy.”
“At the risk of sounding impolite…can you send me the eBook version? Electronic files are more convenient for me.”
They exchange emails. Yating guesses that they have no hope of meeting.
“But I really do want to see you,” Kotoko says. “It’s hard to put my feelings into words, but it’s the first time I’ve felt like this. On one hand, I’m conflicted, but on the other, I just knew it. Even though I’ve never really liked anyone in particular, I knew it all along…that I like girls.”
Yating rolls over and sits up in bed. She turns on her desk lamp and looks squarely at the message. Her face turns red; she suddenly doesn’t know how to respond.
“Hahahaha. Let’s call it a night. Time for bed, child. Good night.” The conversation ends. Kotoko immediately signs off.
They haven’t even officially met, and love has arrived one step early.
Gina reverts back to Yating once more. In the next few days, Kotoko reveals that her name is Wang Xiuqin. They exchange photos clearer than the ones in the app. Yating admits that the cat picture isn’t hers. They chat about their extended family, shared struggles, and attempts to find like-minded people both online and in real life. Xiuqin was brought up in an extremely conservative family. They even forced her into matchmaking many times. She doesn’t get out much, and her main occupation is writing online novels. Yating quickly looks up her name and finds that Kotoko seems to be a fairly popular, well-rated yuri author. Although Kotoko has contemplated running away from home a few times, she somehow always fails to act.
Perhaps being in love has given Yating a new wave of courage. She asks Kotoko if she wants to move in with her. After all, Yating is rarely home during the day, so Kotoko can concentrate on writing in her studio apartment. After that, they’ll take it step by step. Kotoko is silent for a while, then says that she doesn’t want to inconvenience her. Yating says it isn’t a problem at all.
“Really, I don’t want to be a bother. It’ll scare you away,” Kotoko texts.
“It won’t,” Yating replies.
“Give me two weeks. I’ll consult my calendar.”
“I mean, I’ll try to see which day is better for moving.”
“All right, it’s up to you.”
Yating collapses into bed, feeling so giddy that she texts Joe.
“Already moving in on the first date? Damn, Gina. That’s very lesbian of you,” Joe responds, adding a dancing cat GIF. “Is her family intimidating?…You better be careful……don’t let them know where you live!”
“Will do!” Yating says.
The weather is sunny on their agreed move-in date. Yating wakes up early to do laundry. Thinking of Kotoko’s arrival date, she Googles the Chinese farmer’s almanac; indeed, it is an auspicious day.
“Auspicious for: Wedding, consecration, ancestor worship, blessings, seeking heirs, travel, exorcism, lumbering, moving in, residence relocation, matrimonial bed-setting, incense installation, demolition, renovation, raising beam, field planting.”
She brews a pot of coffee and waits for Kotoko to arrive. Although Kotoko said that she won’t be bringing a lot of things, Yating still cleared out two shelves and a few cubbies. If Kotoko needs anything else, they can simply go shopping. They agreed to meet at three in the afternoon. Yating heads downstairs, but doesn’t see anyone at the front entrance. She steps out into the narrow alley outside her apartment, the cacophony of the city flooding in. The alley is empty.
“Are you here yet?” Yating texts.
“Keep walking,” Kotoko replies.
Yating takes a few steps forward, but still, there isn’t a soul in sight. In the middle of the alley, which is so narrow it can barely fit a car, so narrow she has to try all sorts of diagonal maneuvers just to slip in her scooter, she suddenly spots a red envelope lying on the ground. The sun is blazing overhead. Yating was already covered in a thin film of sweat as soon as she came downstairs, but for some reason, she now feels a chill climb up her back.
Her phone buzzes again.
“If you can, please pick it up,” Kotoko says. “Please.”
Just then, a scooter turns into the alley. Yating’s not sure why she responds the way she does. She has the sudden feeling that the red envelope will get run over and immediately charges forward. The rider lets out a curse, narrowly dodges her, and speeds off.
Yating bends down. She gently picks up the red envelope with both hands, her mood peculiarly reverent.
The envelope contains a small lock of hair, along with a slip of paper with several numbers on it. The owner of the Eight Characters2 is Wang Xiuqin. Yating remembers an urban legend she heard growing up—a lock of hair is a token from the underworld. The sky above her begins to spin. Unable to stand, Yating simply sits down on the ground.
“I’m sorry,” Kotoko says. “I understand if it’s a burden.”
The texts continue buzzing, but Yating has lost the energy to read on. She simply sits on the road, the steam from the tarmac warming up her tailbone. A pedestrian comes forward, calls out to her. Yating wants to say that she’s all right, but when she opens her mouth, no sound emerges. Where is my voice? she wonders. She realizes the strength it takes to make one’s voice heard.
Yating looks up and sees an old couple standing before her. She still hasn’t found her voice. The stony-faced old man snatches the red envelope and paper slip from her hands. They hurry off. The old lady turns back and retrieves the lock of hair from Yating’s grip.3
Yating comes back to herself and spots a car turning into the alley. It honks at her, but she doesn’t move. The car backs up and drives away. Sitting in the middle of the road, Yating feels her legs grow weak. She calls an Uber and heads out to find Joe.
Joe is having dinner with a few friends at the East District, and they are all kind enough to let her join. They all assume that Yating experienced her first love and heartbreak and dote over her the entire evening. Amid the restaurant’s background bustle, she checks her text messages and finds it filled with apologies. In a way, Yating understands. Divulging this truth is perhaps harder than coming out.
Joe’s friend happens to be switching jobs and visited a psychic to have her fortune told. The conversation turns to various stories of supernatural occurrences.
Yating uses the conversational opening to ask, “What’s more difficult? Gay marriage or ghost marriage?”
A friend takes the lead in answering, “Gay marriage, of course. It was only legalized in May this year. Ghost marriages have existed for thousands of years. It’s harder to be queer than to be a ghost.”
Returning home, Yating finds her apartment the same way she had left it. The coffee has long gone cold. She recalls the struggle of coming out to her family. Is it more difficult to tell people that you’re a lesbian or more difficult to tell people that you’re dead? It seems hard to tell the difference.
She sits back at her desk and asks Kotoko, “So what now? It seems like your parents don’t approve?”
Xiuqin’s reply comes within seconds. “I’ll keep talking to them…Also, that was my younger brother and sister-in-law.”
Yating seems to gradually understand.
“What year were you born?”
“I guess I’m…19 years old? I don’t really know…”
“And your horoscope?”
“Birth registrations weren’t very accurate back then. I was born in the winter, so maybe I’m a Scorpio or Sagittarius?”
“Can you write longer responses, please?”
“Otherwise, I feel like I’m playing Ouija.”
“Hahahahahahaha, you’re such a pain.”
Yating brews a new pot of tea and refreshes the app. Xiuqin’s distance from her seems to have widened.
“All right, so what are you planning next? Seems like your family doesn’t to want to let you move out.”
“Aren’t you scared?”
“You want the truth?”
“Yes, please always tell me the truth.”
“I’m not scared.”
“I’ll take care of it. They used to not listen to me much, but I make sure that’s not the case anymore.”
“What happens if they don’t listen?”
“I won’t let them sleep.”
“Does that work?”
“How do you think I managed to get a smartphone?”
“Who knew that could even work…”
On Monday, Yating heads to work as usual and texts Xiuqin in her spare time. She wants to send Xiuqin a custom-made joss paper4 computer; otherwise, writing manuscripts on her phone might hurt her eyes. But on second thought, maybe Xiuqin doesn’t struggle with typing on a small screen. Yating will have to wait and see.
It’s another auspicious day. This time, Yating dresses a little more formally and arrives at the café Xiuqin’s family picked. Xiuqin’s brother, sister-in-law, and their daughter are there to meet her. The brother’s expression is unfriendly, the sister-in-law remains silent, but their daughter turns out to be the friendly one. She takes Yating’s hand in an enthusiastic handshake and calls her “Auntie.” This newly acquainted niece is about Yating’s mother’s age. Yating tells the niece to simply call her by name.
The discussion is simple. Every agreement is simple. Yating accepts the original red envelope, which now includes a few photographs of Xiuqin.
They’re not exactly selling their daughter, and since both parties are brides, there is no need to worry about the dowry or bride price. The brother takes out a box containing a gold ring that their mother once made for her daughter’s wedding. He entrusts it to Yating. She hasn’t yet refreshed the app’s user location, but she can feel that Xiuqin is standing in the empty space Yating left for her. Lastly, she exchanges LINE numbers with the niece, who presents her with a red envelope. She says it’s a simple wedding gift. Yating must accept it.
The red envelope and ring are both so weightless they seem nonexistent. When Yating returns home, she places these mementos on her dresser. She opens the golden joss paper burner she bought a few days before and burns the few books that she had carefully hand-picked.
“Thank you!!!” Xiuqin writes to her through text. “I haven’t read a physical book in so long!”
Close to midnight, Xiuqin has not yet arrived. Perhaps she is still handling the bureaucratic affairs. After all, same-sex marriage is still a fairly new procedure.
Yating sits down on her small sofa and opens a newly purchased bottle of champagne, pouring an extra glass for Xiuqin. She turns on the TV and searches for a movie that goes well with wine. Soon, she feels the lightness of a hand press gently against her own on the remote, as cool and refreshing as champagne, soft and tangible to the touch.
1 The original title 百年百合 is a pun on the common wedding greeting 百年好合 (Literal: Hundred Years Good Harmony). It roughly translates to “May you be joined in harmony for a hundred years.” The author replaced “Good Harmony” with “Lily” 百合 (Literal: Hundred Harmony) since “lily” has become synonymous in Chinese for “lesbian.” It originated from the Japanese yuri genre, which also literally translates to “lily.”
2 Eight Characters (八字 bazi) refers to a person’s birth date based on the traditional Stem-and-Branch (干支ganzhi) Calendar often used in fortune-telling, especially to determine a couple’s compatibility before marriage.
3 Based on the Taiwanese tradition of ghost marriages, the family of an unmarried, deceased daughter will place a red envelope containing her hair, nails, and Eight Characters birth date on the side of the street. If a man happens to pick up the red envelope, the family will jump out and shout “Congratulations!” They will then bring the man’s Eight Characters to a fortune teller to inquire about the deceased daughter’s wishes. It is common knowledge in Taiwan that one should be wary of picking up red envelopes lying on the street.
4 Joss paper (or incense paper) is a representative form of money or material goods that families burn as an offering to deceased ancestors. This ensures that the deceased’s needs are taken care of in the afterlife.