Alone in Taipei (a short story)

A hotel room in Xinbeitou

David swipes through the women on his phone.


“You’ve got a match.”


She’s cute, a local flight attendant that loves dogs. She’s hotter than most of the women he’s ever matched with in LA. He lays there naked on a bed in a hotel room in Xinbeitou, north Taipei. He is alone.

He flicks through his dating app for a while longer then gets up and grabs a towel. He catches his reflection in the mirror. He lightly touches the sensitive, red area on his skin on his right side. He flexes. He looks down and flops his dick around.

It’s a nice dick, David’s ex-girlfriends have told him. One time, after his ex returned from a family vacation, she grabbed his crotch as he entered the room pulling him close. She whispered in his ear how much she missed “him.”

He looks at his reflection and wonders if this pain will ever end.

The last time he had sex with a woman was with her seven years ago. He knows it shouldn’t be such a big deal. He recently went through a slew of self help and pick up artist books saying: divorce yourself from the outcome, work on yourself first, don’t be needy…but he is.

He is so damn needy and is not sure what to do.


MOM flashes on his screen. He hesitates, then wraps himself with a towel and answers.

“Hi mom. Yeah my skin’s better, the warm springs have helped. Sorry I didn’t LINE you back…”

David listens as he opens his laptop.

“Ma, I don’t go clubbing, I’m too old for that — how’s your leg? Dad taking his medication?”

David’s mom tells him how he shouldn’t worry about them and that he should take care of himself and focus on his career. David listens as he touches up a powerpoint presentation on his computer. He deftly edits one of the images.

“Ok, ok. Hey ma, what’s a good Taiwanese gift I should get A-chan?”

His mom tells him to save money but if he wants to get something for his niece, make sure it’s safe for kids. He puts his phone on speaker and continues to listen:

“you qian de hua, ni keyi qu yige hao laopo ranhou you ziji de xiaohai.”

Yes, my life, my education, my career, my money…it’s all for getting a good wife and having children. Surviving and replicating.

He taps the wifi symbol on his laptop.

Damn, what’s the password?

“Ma, I’m going to get back to work. wan’an”

“hao a, hao a. bie shui tai wan. wan’an.“

David hangs up. He saves the powerpoint then puts on his robe and slippers. He walks out of his room to the front counter. The attractive female receptionist with the round face–her name tag says Ting-Ting–sorts through keys and paperwork at the desk.

“buhao yisi,” he says in his stilted Mandarin.

She looks up and eyes him.

“Do you have the wifi mima?”

Without saying a word, she hands him a slip of paper with the wifi code. Another female clerk pulls up a laundry basket full of towels behind her and Ting-Ting helps her unload it.

“wa, hen duo towels.”

She shoots David a perplexed look, the same when he checked in.

He nods his head politely and hurries back to his room. That look.

Earlier that day, he had asked her in English,

“Is there free breakfast?”

He gave an awkward smile. David had found that if he speaks English at Taiwanese tourist places, he’d usually get better customer service. Also, sometimes the female attendants would show more interest and ask where he’s from.

Instead she gave that look. David asked again in his ABC accented Mandarin and she shook her head.

“Only coffee and tea free.”

He goes back to his room and slips off his robe. He connects online and types in a few letters into the browser. It auto-completes to the last porn site he visited. His index finger hovers over the enter button.

He pulls his hand back. He’s been porn-free since he landed in Taipei a week ago. Maybe he can last a little longer.

He goes back to his dating profile. In the upper right corner he sees he has 80+ women that have liked him. Back in California, that number would hover around four. He was twenty times more desirable in Taiwan than in America.

If he lived here, just by the numbers, this drought would’ve ended a long time ago. Maybe it’ll end tonight.

It’s so fucking stupid, a man my age caring so much about getting laid.

When he tells his female friends this, they laugh it off as immature and funny. When he tells his heterosexual Asian American guy friends this–they nod solemnly.

Some of them are happily married, in relationships, single, some are even former pick up artists. Regardless, they know. They know the pain of not feeling desirable. They know how much harder they’ve had to work.

I should just move to Taipei.

It was ridiculous. As David went through the app, he was matching with attractive women that would not give him the time of day in the U.S. He felt somewhat validated, but at the same time, it made him want to burn everything to the ground.

The hotel room balcony

Before this business trip, David went out for dinner in Los Feliz with his friend Mark. As they sat waiting for their tostadas, he saw Mark do that familiar swiping motion with his phone.

“How many matches you got?”

Mark flipped his cell around. He had 140+ matches, most of them being Asian and Latina women, based on his race and location preferences. Mark shrugged his shoulders and returned to swiping.

“It’s like a fucking full time job trying to keep up. How many matches you got?”

“Just a couple.”

David excused himself and went to the restroom. He didn’t need to go pee, he just didn’t want to show Mark his phone. He didn’t want to show him how after spending hours crafting the perfect profile–with a practiced smile and pictures of him doing cool shit and living his best life–he had five matches and they weren’t really attractive.

Mark–who’s six feet tall, white, ok looking–met David in business school and when he found out David was into pick up too, they would “go on the hunt” regularly.

One time Mark went up to an Asian woman at a bar and said,


She sneered. David thought she was going to slap him.

“Wrong race asshole, I’m Korean.”

She turned away.

“I’m sorry, annyeong haseyeo.”

“Oh wow, you speak Korean.”

She turned back and smiled. David was fucking floored.


“Can we meet later at 1930 instead of 1900? Sorry!”

The message pops up on David’s phone. He had set up a date that night with Yuwei, a logistics manager that lives in the Beitou area. She’s 163 cm (5’4”) tall, likes travel, eating good food, and gentlemen that open the door for her. Her profile picture is her in a dress, drinking wine on a balcony with Taipei moonlit in the background.

“That’s fine. manman lai. See you soon!”

David scrolls through and replies to the rest of his online dating messages. He makes sure to be playful and terse with his responses. It takes him a good twenty three minutes to get through all of them. Mark’s right, this is like a job.

“Get laid homie! I want a field report when you get back,” Mark had told him..

If I have anything to report.

David checks the time, he’s got an extra hour. He goes to his laptop, the porn site blinks in the address bar. If he watches porn now, it’s going to take at least thirty five minutes and after he finishes, he knows he’s not going to have enough drive to be engaged during the date.

He closes the screen.

“I’m surprise you choose Taiwanese restaurant.”

“Well, I’m here in Taiwan, might as well eat Taiwanese food.”

Yuwei smiles at his remark and David feels his heart jump. Even though her profile picture was a little touched up, she is still quite pretty in real life. She looks at the castled shaped rice dish on their plates.

“You even ordered migao. Very Taiwanese.”

“I try to get it whenever I’m in town.”

She nods and stares at him. Oh no. Whenever attractive women look at him, he gets nervous.

“You look good.”

He blushes.

“Thank you, you too.”

This date is off to a good start!

David had taken extra care to style his hair and shave, as well as put medicated cream on the dry skin area. He even did a few push ups beforehand to get his blood pumping and did his affirmations: “I’m strong. I’m intelligent. I’m sexually attractive.”

They chat the typical first date topics: work, hobbies, travel. Her English is much better than his Mandarin, so they just speak English.

“So, your Dad Taiwanese?”


“And mom too?”

“Uh, yeah why?”

She eyes him.

“You look like hunxie.”

“Like, mixed?”

“Yeah, you know, I thought your Dad must be white and your mom Taiwanese. Your face very — Western.”

“Gotcha, well, I’m not half white.”


Dejected, she stirs the migao on her plate. David leans back, self conscious. She looks up at him and throws a smile.

“I mean that as a compliment.”


“You looking like hunxie. It is a compliment.”

“I see.”

How the fuck is that a compliment?

He looks at her, she’s wearing a similar dress as the one in her profile and it shows off her slender shoulders.

Damn it, she’s still hot though. Who am I to judge? She grew up in a different environment than me, how’s she to know the racial, socio-political implications of blah, blah, blah…

After an awkward dinner, David pays the bill and opens the door for her as they exit.

David’s right side itches.

Should I?

He stares at how her hair brushes her neck.

Fuck it.

“Hey, do you like watching movies?”

“Of course.”

“You have a favorite one?”

“Oh, I really like ‘La La Land’. That one so good.”


Strike two. Hey girl, how can you like a movie where Ryan Gosling is going to save jazz and John Legend is the sell out? JOHN LEGEND.

She pats her thigh with her fist in that bouncing motion specific to women that grew up in East Asia.

David, be more forgiving, “City of Stars” is not that bad of a song…

“I’m staying close by. They have a big screen in my room and Netflix. Maybe we can watch a movie.”

She studies him for a moment, then does a small laugh.

“I don’t know if this American thing, but in Taiwan, even most Asia, we don’t go to person room on first date.”

“I see.”

Fuck, fuck, I’m gross. I’m such a fucking creep.

“Do you do that on first date all the time?”

“No, not really. I just thought, you know, you seem cool and if you like movies…I mean, no pressure, we don’t have to do anything, we can just hang out.”

She fixes her makeup with her phone selfie camera.

“en, en, ok I have to meet a friend, sorry. Thanks for dinner. Bye bye!”

David goes in for a hug, but she’s already walking backwards and waving so he gives her a high five instead. She gives a confused look and walks off.

David watches her slim figure slip off into the night.

What the fuck am I doing with my life?

Xinbeitou at night

The air in Xinbeitou has a sulphuric, salty smell from the natural hot springs that tickle his nose. He sneezes.

He walks back to the hotel, deep in thought.

She was not my type anyways. hunxie? “La La Land”? I don’t care if she’s Taiwanese, there is no excuse…

David passes a young Taiwanese guy sitting on his motorcycle, tapping away on his phone.

I wonder how many matches he got.

David steps into the hotel and walks by the front desk, no one.

He walks down the hall to the gift shop. Ting-Ting is locking up.

“buhaoyisi, is it ok if I get something real quick? It’s for my niece, my um…”

He types into his phone translator. She crosses her arms, the keys jingle in her hand.

“zhinu. wo yao mai liwu gei wo zhinu.”

She studies him and gives a rare smile. David freezes. The reflection of a full moon on a calm clear lake flashes through his mind.

“hao a, wu fenzhong.”

Ting-Ting opens the door. He rushes in and scans the narrow aisles. Something catches his eyes. He grabs it and heads to the counter.

Ting-Ting is typing into her phone. She puts it away and takes the item.

“Hello Kitty?”

“Yeah, I like it. Hello Kitty, hot springs style. Uh, I can’t read the tags, but is this safe for kids?”

“ni zhinu jisui?”

“She’s four.”

Ting-Ting reads the tags.

“Very safe.”


Ting-Ting chuckles and wraps it. David pays for the plush toy and she hands the wrapped item back.

“You’re a good shushu.”

“I’m ok. zhende xiexie.”

He steps outside and watches Ting-Ting lock up. She looks at him.

“hai xuyao shenme bangmang ma?”

“No I just uh…how long have you been working here?”

“One year, but not whole time.”

“Oh yeah, what else do you do?”

She makes a drawing motion.

“I study graphic design. Graduate student.”

“Whoa cool. I personally wanted to study illustration as a college student, but my parents refused to pay for it.”

“Yeah, my parents also say study art not good.”

“My dad told me, “Can you draw money?’”

She laughs.

“Asian parent all same.”

David laughs and nods. They stand in the empty hallway for a moment. She motions to leave. David scratches his side.

“Hey, um, if it’s ok, do you want to grab coffee? After you finish up.”

“The coffee room still open, you can grab yourself.”

“No, I mean…sorry…after your work, want to go out maybe to get coffee or zhenzhu nai cha with me?”

She gives another smile. The moon’s reflection ripples on the surface of the lake.

“I’m happy you ask, but I have boyfriend. He actually outside wait for me. But thank you, it is very nice. I hope your zhinu like the hot spring Hello Kitty.”

She gives a short wave and walks away, the sound of keys echo through the hallway.

A square bath in the bathroom

David goes into his room and puts the gift on a counter. He takes off all his clothes. He examines the itchy, red area.

After the break up, he had noticed it–a small, dime-sized red spot near his right floating ribs. It grew to the size of his palm and flaky skin would cake over it.

I am disgusting.

He opens his laptop.

On average it takes about thirty minutes to search and settle on a good porn video and then another five minutes of watching and timing his finish with the money shot. He feels his hands itch as they hover over the keys.

He closes the laptop.

This is depressing.


He carefully peeks outside through the curtains. Ting-Ting jumps onto the back of a motorcycle with that young Taiwanese guy David passed earlier in the front. She hugs him. They drive off. An older man stumbles out of a nearby club, drunk.

David flops onto the bed. He lies there naked with his phone and checks his messages. His boss reminds him to finalize the powerpoint for the trip to Tainan tomorrow. David couldn’t care less.

He checks his dating app. No updates. He swipes through more dating profiles.

“You’ve reached your max limit for today. If you’d like unlimited matches, please pay…”

David tosses the phone onto the bed. No matter where he goes, there he is.


He turns his phone over. A message:

“Big Bro — ‘A-chan made something for you.’”

David covers himself with a towel and clicks on the message.

A crayon drawing of a yam shaped island fills the screen. Across the top is a child’s handwriting: “have fun in taiwan! wo ai ni! — a-chan =)”

David holds his face in his hands.

Outside he hears the drunk man sing to an invisible audience.

He wipes his eyes and types.

“It’s beautiful. Tell her I love her too and I got her an awesome present. See everyone soon.”

David gets up and drinks some water, the taste of tears on his lips. He walks to the bathroom and pulls off his towel. He massages his side. With the medicated creams and cutting out alcohol, he’d been able to reduce some of the plaques, but it still itches like crazy. He had read mineral baths could help.

He turns on the hot spring bath and watches it fill the square, stone tub. Steam and the smell of sulphur, the patter of water hitting water — this monotonous meditation numbs his brain.

He stares at his reflection in the fogged mirror at the end of the bathroom, his form barely visible.

Why can’t I love this person?

He turns off the hot spring faucet then tops off the bath with cold water. He eases his legs in.

Fuck it’s still hot.

He acclimates to the heat and slides his whole body in.


He lingers there. His side burns. He dips further in, covering his mouth. The mineral salty taste creeps in. He pulls himself underwater and grips his knees. A hot, liquid cocoon. His heart reverberates against the water and the interior walls of his body. His skin edges on the ledge of pain.

He lifts his head out and breathes.

This is nice.

“Alone in Taipei” audio version, as read by the author: COMING SOON

The bulk of this short story was written in early 2019, with final edits made in July and October 2020.

Acknowledgments: Special thanks to Nick Louie, Dan Nguyen, and Richard Sue for their thoughtful notes that helped shape the final form of this story.

Words, photos, and video by James Y. Shih

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. Certain long-standing institutions, agencies, and public offices are mentioned, but the characters involved are wholly imaginary.



I write stories, make films (Ahma & Alan), podcast (Yin & Young), practice martial arts, play music, travel, exist. Taiwanese American. He/him.

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James Y. Shih

I write stories, make films (Ahma & Alan), podcast (Yin & Young), practice martial arts, play music, travel, exist. Taiwanese American. He/him.