In a recent interview I was asked how I became a literary legend in Asia.
I was a 13-years-old newspaper boy on my route one early morning when a freak snowstorm hit. A car stopped and a small Asian man rolled down the window and asked me if I’d like a ride. At least I think that is what he asked me that morning; I remember that he spoke what sounded like a foreign language. He swung open the car door. It was cold and snowing. I got in. He gave me a cup of hot chocolate to drink. Next thing I woke up in San Francisco. Everything I had was on me that morning. I had lost my small nest egg.
I was without any money and living in a small room in the back of a Chinese restaurant. I was forced to wash dishes. I didn’t understand a word of what was being said around me. I washed dishes until I turned fifteen, saving my money. One day a customer, driving a new BMW, arrived at the restaurant. She pulled me outside and pointed at her car. She was Chinese and old enough to be my mother. I didn’t understand a word she said. Chinese is a hard language to learn and a dishwasher doesn’t get a lot of vocabulary thrown at him.
It didn’t matter about her lack of English, I was used to not understanding anyone around me. But I was getting good at reading expressions and body language. I got into her new, shiny car. I liked her smile. She gave me a nice drink in a bottle, and when I woke up, I was on a boat in the middle of the sea. I had again lost my small nest egg.
Three weeks later, I arrived by ship in Bangkok. I was handed over by an agent to a mamasan, and worked for the next two years washing sheets and cleaning rooms in an upscale brothel in the old part of the city. I saved every baht I could lay my hands on. The mamasan’s sister in San Francisco threatened to kill me unless I paid her an employment placement fee of three thousand dollars. I had until the end of the week. I told a GI who was on RR and a customer at the brothel that I was being held against my will. He helped me escape one night. Someone broke his nose in the fight out of the place. He held off three bouncers with a knife. I lost all of my savings. The GI said he could find me a job in Vietnam.
I got a job stacking shelves in the American PX in Saigon. I lasted almost two years. I had saved enough working at the PX to return home. Two days before I was to leave Saigon, my apartment took a direct hit from a Viet Cong shell. I later found out it was an agent of the mamasan and the woman from San Francisco who had paid the Viet Cong to destroy my place. I was supposed to be inside. But I lost all of my savings.
I walked into the Canadian embassy and told them I wanted to go home but I had no money. The second secretary got me a ticket on the black market and took me aside and told me that unless I paid him back within six months he would fly to Vancouver and kill me with his bare hands. He had big hands with large blue veins like a living killing machine. I thought he might know the mamasan or her sister. I was careful about places and dates.
Twenty-years old, I arrived in Vancouver, promising myself never to take another free ride from a stranger, when a car pulled up and an Asian man asked me if I like a lift. I get in. Why? I thought he’d been sent by either by the embassy guy in Saigon, the mamasan in Bangkok or that woman in San Francisco. One of them had sent a hitman who’d finally caught up with me. I thought my life was over. Accept karma, I told myself. At least I hadn’t saved anything. I had absolutely nothing to lose. But I was wrong.
The driver spoke perfect English. He’d been born in Canada and said he didn’t know anyone in Vietnam or the Canadian Embassy. So I told him my story. He asked me if I let him make me into a literary legend? I asked him if I got to keep the money I saved? He said, you bet. I said I had no money to bet with. He said it was a figure of speech and a writer had to learn to live with it just like Hugh Heffner had learned to live with a bed full of blondes.
I said I could do that and I also told him that he was the first person since I was 12 that I’d had a real conversation with in English. He said Conrad (Joseph Conrad, not Conrad Black) had a problem with English as a second language. I said I had a problem with English as a first language. He said that he was Chinese Canadian and he fully understood and offered to be my agent. He got me a contract to write a radio play for the CBC and then a book deal in New York.
I stopped saving and spent every dime as it came in. A couple of years later, my agent introduced me to his father, an old Asian man. The father smiled, and I smiled. Even though the father was quite old but I remembered him—the man who had stopped his car in a snowstorm when I was thirteen and offered me a ride and a cup of hot chocolate. He winked and asked me if I’d like something to drink.
This article was originally posted in April 23rd, 2010.