Big In Taiwan
“You are Lionel Schlevitz.”
On the face of it, there’s nothing extraordinary about these words. I mean, we’ve all been recognized by people at some point or another. Still, these were the words that threw Lionel’s otherwise inevitably normal life into total disarray.
As Lionel tells it, the whole thing started in the Technology Building station bathroom of Taipei’s Mass Rapid Transit subway station. Lionel walks into this bathroom and the two guys grooming each others’ dyed and styled hair at the sinks turn around and gasp at the sight of him. Lionel was new to Taiwan, so he was already weirded out that there were two men combing each other in a public restroom. And then they had to go and start gawking at him, which was not something that Taiwanese people usually did to foreigners. It was weird enough that Lionel felt like he had to go into a stall, even though all he needed to do was urinate. When he came out, the two Taiwanese guys were still there, combs gripped in their hands. And they were still staring in his direction. As he put his hands into the sink and activated its automatic burst of water, one of the guys swallowed and worked up the courage to say something to him.
“You are … Lionel … Schlevitz,” he said haltingly. One of the strangest things about what happened to Lionel was the complete persistence of Chinese speakers’ inability to properly pronounce the name “Lionel Schlevitz.” The name was like a special kind of torture designed for the Taiwanese tongue.
Lionel was baffled as to how they’d know who he was, but he assumed he must be having a major embarrassing “they all look the same” moment.
“Yeah,” he said, “that’s me. I’m sorry, I’ve totally forgotten where we’ve met before.”
At this, both the guys started laughing. Lionel stared at them, puzzled.
“No, no,” said one of them. “We did not meet. You are, ah, … very famous.”
“Maybe you’ve got me confused with someone else?” Lionel asked, realizing even as he said it how unlikely it was that he would be mistaken for some other, famous Lionel Schlevitz.
“You are Lionel Schlevitz,” one the men said simply.
“Well, yes,” he said.
They both dug around in their bags until they found a piece of paper and a couple of pens.
“Can you write?” one of them asked.
“Your name,” again, as if this were terribly obvious.
Lionel, at this point thoroughly bemused by the whole encounter, agreed to give them his autograph. But of course this being Taiwan, a place where everyone feels the need to take selfies while eating, sitting in cafes, waiting in line or doing anything else, they needed pictures with him. No way someone here would pass up a photo op.
While they were doing this another man walked into the bathroom, a forty-something businessman. He stopped as he came in and watched Lionel with the two men. As Lionel finished with those two men and tried to leave, the man cut him off and asked if he could also take a photo with him, the famous Lionel Schlevitz. Naturally, Lionel couldn’t turn this guy down after taking photos with the others.
He then left the bathroom thoroughly confused and came to work. Lionel was the new English teacher at the cram school that I worked at. He was having definite culture shock from his move here. He reacted with wonder and confusion to an endless number of things I took for granted, from glue applicators and corporate mascots to Buddhist processions and reflexology charts. I saw it as my duty to help him get some grounding in the city. He had seemed to be adjusting well enough until he came into school and told me about what happened in the bathroom.
Now, if I sound derisive when describing Lionel, please keep in mind it’s only to demonstrate the extreme unlikelihood of what happened to him. He was certainly a nice guy, but almost aggressively normal. ‘Plain’ might describe him better. He was from Toronto, except he wasn’t really, he was actually from “the GTA,” as he referred to it, meaning the Greater Toronto Area. His personality seemed to be purposefully engineered to conform to Americans’ stereotypes about Canadians. He was nice, polite, and inoffensive, rivaling the Taiwanese themselves in his reticence to openly take a definitive stand or start an argument. Physically, he looked like he’d been the kind of kid that team captains chose somewhere between the tall ones and the fat ones in P.E.
Now he’d been marked out as special, and he was wracking his brain trying to figure out how it had happened. I wasn’t any help; it was just as much of a mystery for me. He briefly considered the idea that I had set it up as a prank, but I insisted this was not the case and pointed out just how hard this would have been to accomplish, which he accepted. I asked him if there was anyone he knew that might pull this on him. He insisted I was practically the only person he even knew in Taipei, which was true enough. He hadn’t been here for long.
This was our little unsolved mystery for a few weeks. We waited to see if anything else happened, and nothing did. By this point, my hypothesis was that Lionel Schlevitz had become inexplicably popular for something that he himself had no knowledge of. He had a frighteningly dull Facebook page, the kind where 75% of all activity seemed to come from his family members, and no other internet presence, so that was out. I figured it was something to do with Taiwanese TV news. The news in Taiwan was full of non-stories spotlighting random people for such minor things as making a weird noise during a car accident or openly ogling girls on the street. But he thought that didn’t make much sense since the people knew his name, and nothing came up when he Googled himself. Regardless, this was the best theory either of us could come up with.
And then just when we’d written it off as some weird fluke, it happened to him again. We’d been to an all-you-can-eat hot pot place in Yonghe and Lionel must have ate something special, because as we waited for the train back into Taipei proper he told me to go ahead without him—he had a sudden and pressing engagement with some porcelain.
He rushed into the bathroom, startling a middle-aged man who was coming out. He didn’t bother apologizing, however, as he was more focused on emptying his bowels. A second after he’d shut himself in the stall (silently thanking his own personal God that the Western-style toilet had been left open), he heard a banging on the door.
“Lionel! Lionel!” a voice called out from the other side.
“What?” he shouted. But as soon as the word was out of his mouth he knew what it was. He was famous again.
“You are Lionel Schlevitz!”
“Yes, I know!”
“Will you go soon?”
“I’m trying to!”
“I will not stop you. I just want you to sign. For my son.”
“Listen, I’ve got a lot on my hands right now, okay? Or I mean, it’s not on my hands, I just, look, I can’t help you now.”
“That is okay. I can wait.”
“No, no. It is not trouble.”
For a couple minutes Lionel just sat there, waiting, not doing anything and hearing nothing but silence from beyond the stall door. Finally he called out over the bathroom wall to see if the man was there, as if checking for enemies over the trench. The man was still there. Feeling awkward now that he’d called out about him (which is to say even more awkward then before), Lionel decided he might be able to turn the questions back on this man through some kind of confused conversational jujitsu.
“So, why is your son a fan of mine?”
“He likes the famous people.”
“Yes, but why me?”
“He likes all famous people. He has many, many sign photos, but all Taiwanese.”
“Okay, got it. He likes famous people. But please tell me, why am I famous?”
“Sorry, I am confused.”
“You’re confused?” asked Lionel as he finally exited the stall with a push of the door, too concerned about finding an answer to worry about the manners of the situation anymore. “If you think you’re confused, then try walking into a public toilet and all of a sudden having someone accost you for autographs.”
Lionel looked at the man, and the man looked back patiently and expectantly from behind a pair of small clear framed glasses. He looked like your standard Taiwanese white collar worker; button-up white shirt, black slacks, plain dark hair cut neat and close to the head.
“Okay, sorry for confusing you. Here, what do you want me to sign?”
“You do not have picture?”
“No, why would I have picture? I mean, a picture. Why would I have a picture?”
“But all famous people have picture for fans. When I see Jay Chou, he gave me two!”
“Well, I’m hardly as famous as Jay Chou. Wait, am I as famous as Jay Chou?”
“I think, maybe you are not,” the man said with visible disappointment, pulling a wrinkled receipt out of his pocket.
Lionel signed it, handed it back to him, and then they both left. He told me about the whole encounter the next day. He was now sure that someone was pulling an elaborate prank on him, but he couldn’t figure out who or why. He thought it might be some set-up from a Taiwanese variety show, but how could they get permission to put hidden cameras in a bathroom? And how would they even know when he was going to be there? Once was feasible, but twice seemed nearly impossible.
When he brought up the logistics of installing cameras in the bathrooms I realized something that Lionel had apparently overlooked: both of his celebrity moments occurred in the bathrooms of MRT stations. I asked if he’d been in an MRT bathroom between the first incident and the second. He hadn’t. After work we decided to do an experiment and went to the nearest MRT station to see for ourselves.
Within two minutes of us lurking in the front area, a Taiwanese guy in his twenties came up to Lionel for a picture. This was followed by a pair of gawky high school boys, both in their school uniforms. Every time they took a photo Lionel would just stare at the camera as if shoved into a mugshot. When questioned, none of the guys who wanted a picture could speak very good English, but they all indicated that Lionel was famous because he was famous. Of course we’re all familiar with people who are famous for no good reason, but this was the first time I’d heard about someone being famous for no reason without even knowing about it.
One thing that bothered me was that if Lionel suddenly became famous in MRT bathrooms, why didn’t I feel any need for his autograph? Because to me, Lionel Schlevitz wasn’t a celebrity at all. He was just the hapless schmuck I worked with. We decided to do another test on Wednesday night.
Wednesday was a promotional night for many of the bars and clubs in Taipei. There was a “rock and roll” themed bar near Guting station where I went to pick up bland Taiwanese chicks and Lionel went to become a third wheel to the process. The bar hosted a clientele of both foreigners and Taiwanese people, so I figured it would offer us a broad enough cross-sample to work from.
After a few drinks to bolster us up before committing this surreal social act, we began to goad some acquaintances to come and see Lionel in the nearest MRT bathroom. I had a bit of trouble getting people over their skepticism of leaving the bar in order to go meet someone in a public restroom, but ultimately found enough people to test it out fully. There were a couple of Americans, they didn’t react to Lionel any differently. Nor did a Taiwanese acquaintance who’d already met Lionel. It wasn’t until I ran into Min, a Taiwanese guy I knew who led a mediocre math rock band, that we found someone who had a reaction to Lionel.
“Oh, is he that guy?” Min asked casually.
“Yeah!” I said, “He’s Lionel Schlevitz. Where do you know him from?”
“Isn’t he, like, famous or something?”
“Yeah, yeah! What’s he famous for?” I asked, eager to hear it from someone who spoke really good English.
“Come on, man, I don’t follow that shit. Celebrity news has replaced religion as the opiate of the masses,” Min told me disdainfully.
So only Taiwanese people who hadn’t met Lionel before thought he was a famous person. As if they didn’t already seem distant enough for Lionel, newly arrived and unable to speak fully with most of them. Hell, I’d been here for a while, I had Taiwanese friends, and I still found myself thinking of “the Taiwanese” as some abstract, generalized group. I couldn’t fully imagine what Lionel must think if his only real experience with Taiwanese people was seeing them inexplicably drawn to his sudden new celebrity.
Lionel started hanging out less. He would bolt out of work as soon as he could, and when I texted him Saturday nights he was suddenly busy and unavailable. I came to suspect that Lionel was going to the bathroom.
I could understand why. Someone like Lionel, perfectly ordinary, comes over here and expects to be different. To be special in a way, his mere existence a minor adventure. And sure, maybe some kid stares and shouts out “waiguoren” or “adoah,” but for the most part people don’t even see him. He was a short, skinny, dark-haired guy on an island full of them. And after finding this out, Lionel discovers this place, a well-maintained and clean room of orderly blue stalls and white urinals. And he’s special there. More so than any foreigner in Taiwan. More so than practically anyone. He’s not just the disposable minor curiosity of a foreigner in a homogenous land, but a well-known and apparently well-liked celebrity. How could he not be drawn in by that?
And then one day he walked in late to work and raised his arms out as if about to perform a deep bow. “I got laid,” he said simply and loudly before walking straight into the class he was supposed to have started five minutes earlier.
This was a big deal for Lionel. He’d been here for a while and it just hadn’t happened. I don’t know if he had full blown Yellow Fever or if he just didn’t get much back home and thought Taiwan would be different. But I could tell that he’d come out to Asia with the idea that it was easier to get laid here. And this was true. It was easier to get laid.
But what he didn’t keep in mind was that it was easier, not guaranteed. If you weren’t the type to pull girls back home, you probably wouldn’t be here either. And Lionel wasn’t the type. He’d shuffle around the edges of bars and clubs, staring into his drink as if he were a warlock about to conjure his own girl out of it. He’d politely ask women if they wanted to go home with him in just the right pitch of desperation to guarantee a ‘no.’ It was unfair to him, really, but sex is like money: the more you need it, the harder it is to get. I once drunkenly called him on this, asserting he clearly wasn’t too experienced with the opposite sex.
“I’ll have you know that one summer after high school at the Eastern Ontario Israeli-Canadian Jewish Alliance Camp I—” Lionel started to say indignantly before I cut him off.
“Stop. Stop right there,” I said. “Nothing impressive can come after that sentence. You could have had a foursome with triplets. Doesn’t matter. You say anything else and it just turns into some sad formative scene from a Philip Roth novel.”
“Who’s Philip Roth?” he asked.
“OK, never mind,” I said. “I’m just saying maybe you’re not a Casanova back home or anything and you probably wanna change that here, right?”
I tried to give him advice—relax, target the second or third most attractive one in the group, pretend you’re the most boring person in the world and ask lots of questions, but nothing worked for him.
We’d sit there in Shida park on Saturday nights, sipping big bottles of Taiwan Beer and watching the girls walk by in their summer dresses and very, very short shorts. And we’d both be watching, but Lionel’s eyes would be hungry. Even angry. Like sex wasn’t just something that happened when a girl found you attractive, but a right. Something he deserved. Something he was being unfairly denied. And every time I was getting texts from one girl or avoiding calls from another I could feel him looking at me in a similar way, envious and resentful of my success as a compulsive womanizer. So Lionel finally getting laid was a big deal.
“I was hanging out in the Liuzhangli bathroom, and guess what happened?” Lionel started off, not even bothering to conceal that he was hanging out in the Liuzhangli MRT bathroom now.
The short of it was that Lionel was standing in the doorway when a passing woman saw him and came over because she was such a big fan, even if she couldn’t really speak English. Then without fully bothering to establish what she was doing she pushed him into a stall where she proceeded to have sex with him, requiring a level of subterfuge and a creative use of limited space that I try not to think about. She was “like 35, but hot,” in Lionel’s words.
From this point on, Lionel didn’t bother to come to work consistently. And when he did show up, he was increasingly contemptuous and angry. In class he’d start yelling at kids when they wouldn’t listen to him, really yelling. He’d toss books across the room, soon it seemed like he was chucking them at students. He’d snap that he didn’t have to put up with this and ask if they even knew who he was. They knew exactly who he was: a nobody.
We were tools that parents used to demonstrate to their friends that they could afford to hire real live white people to lecture their children. It’s hard to get fired when you’re a living status symbol, but Lionel managed it. Losing the job wouldn’t have been a big deal for him, but it also meant that he was losing his permit to stay in the country. He wanted to go on a visa run in the Philippines and then come back for work, but he didn’t have the money. He begged his parents, but they were only willing to buy him a ticket back to Canada. He couldn’t do that. There were no MRT bathrooms back in the Greater Toronto Area.
One Wednesday I was walking into an MRT station when I saw Lionel walking out of the bathroom quickly and skittishly, like a deer crossing a highway. I convinced him to leave his own little realm of lavatory celebrity for a night and join me for some beef noodles and cheap beer. After we got on the train I caught Lionel staring with fervor at the other end of the car. There was a young, pretty girl in denim short shorts and the kind of cheesy, cutesy mass-produced t-shirt that was on sale at every night market in the city.
“That’s the one I was talking about,” said Lionel. “She’s the last girl I banged in the bathroom, in Zhongshan. Anne.”
Anne seemed to be spacing out and didn’t notice us. Because Lionel was apparently still terrified of approaching women without his celebrity, he moved to her side of the car in the hope that she’d see him and say something. Nothing happened. He stood deliberately right in front of her, hustling aside a chubby middle-aged woman. Still nothing. He stared at her. No sign of recognition. He finally forced her name out of his throat. She looked up startled. He smiled. First a look of confusion, then fear. For a moment, I thought the sex had just been that bad. But no, she had no idea who this foreigner could be. The train pulled to a stop at the next station and she jumped from her seat and out the sliding doors. As we pulled away I could see her waiting nervously at the platform for the next train.
“Is that the first time you’ve ever run into someone from the bathroom?” I asked Lionel after we got to the restaurant.
“There’s actually been a couple of times I thought I saw other people, but they didn’t say anything, so I didn’t either. I figured they must have been different people after all.”
“Well, now we know that once they leave the bathroom, they forget about you.”
Lionel stopped speaking and looked down, thinking this over for a bit. “What do all these people with my signature or pictures of me on their phones think when they see them later?” he finally asked me sadly.
“Hell, I dunno. Not to mention the girls you’ve slept with under false pretenses.”
“They didn’t,” he answered sharply and quickly. “They didn’t sleep with me under false pretenses. They chose to. They consented.”
“I mean it. They chose me. It’s what they wanted.”
I didn’t touch the subject again. After noodles we moved on to the bar. I was texting a girl I’d met the week before, and I could catch Lionel’s eyes on me. We kept drinking.
“I can’t go home,” Lionel said at one point suddenly, “I just can’t.”
“Why not?” I asked. “Personally, I’m looking forward to being back in a place where people understand me and I understand them. Where my daily life doesn’t have a constant undercurrent of incomprehensibility.”
“Yeah, sure,” Lionel said. “But being a nobody again? I can’t do that.”
“You can’t live here forever,” I said.
“Why not? Other foreigners do it.”
“They get married or prove they’re of value to the country.”
“I can keep staying on in the short term. Teaching English contract by contract. We’ve both met people who have been here for a decade like that.”
“What I really mean is, you can’t keep spending all your days in public restrooms. It’s unhealthy. It’s not the real world. And what if it changed one day? What if this strange dimensional quirk that made you famous gets canceled out?”
He didn’t answer. I knew he was thinking about the possibility that his fame could disappear as suddenly as it had arrived, but he didn’t want to even discuss the possibility.
“Look,” I told him, “you weren’t meant to be famous. What you have isn’t right. You get nothing lasting out of it. The minute those people leave, they don’t think you’re special anymore. They don’t think about you at all.”
“I’ll make them think of me,” Lionel said. “I’ll find some way to stay famous. I’ll be famous forever.”
I never saw Lionel again. As far as I knew, he’d cut off all contact with home. He stopped talking to me. I figured he might have stopped paying his phone bill, but I couldn’t find him at home either. Every time I was in an MRT station, I checked the bathrooms. Nothing.
And then he popped up on the internet one day. He was in an article that a Taiwanese friend of mine had posted on Facebook. There was an attached video taken on a bystander’s phone. The video simply showed smoke lapping out of the bathroom in Zhongxiao Fuxing station, flames slightly visible flickering behind it. A busy spot. He’d clearly chosen it for the number of people. The place of Lionel Schlevitz’s last stand.
According to the many articles, reports, and blog posts that appeared afterward, Lionel walked into the bathroom at Zhongxiao Fuxing station during rush hour, sat down in one of the stalls, drenched himself in kerosene, and lit himself on fire. He’d taken a medicine cabinet’s worth of painkillers and codeine cough syrup beforehand.
And it was all apparently done in political protest. He’d drafted a letter explaining that he had undertaken this drastic action out of solidarity with the Taiwanese people in opposition to the existential threat posed by Mainland China’s tyrannical aggression towards their sovereignty. He couldn’t speak any Chinese. He had never cared about politics. He was less Lord Byron in Greece and more Tom Cruise on Oprah
But his gambit worked. His suicide was never more than a small item in the international papers, but the Taiwanese press, always fans of easy controversy, jumped on the story. Mostly, they just focused on the sheer peculiarity of an unknown foreigner self-immolating in a public restroom like some kind of constipated Buddhist monk, but I couldn’t go on the internet for weeks without seeing jokes or long conversational threads about Lionel.
And I was the only one alive who understood the strange situation that had led him to this point. I was the only one who knew the truth behind it, who knew that he hadn’t killed himself out of any kind of unhinged political solidarity. Taiwan never really mattered for Lionel Schlevitz. Only fame did.
Aaron Fox-Lerner was born in Los Angeles and currently lives in Beijing. He once lived in Taiwan, where he was impressed by the public toilets. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Thuglit, and other publications.