September 17: “Phoenix Eyes” by Russell Charles Leong

Happy Saturday, Story366! Today, me and the boys trucked on without the Karen, who this afternoon did a reading from her new book in her home town back in Ohio. To celebrate, she’s carousing with her mom, sister, brother, and some friends at some watering hole, then will head home tomorrow. We miss her like gangbusters, but I can’t tell you how happy I am that all of this is happening for her. This book, No More Milk, is Karen’s first full-length, an arrival delayed by, among other things, Karen’s constant sacrifices so that my career could take off. For years, she covered home base while I was out promoting books, attending conferences, and interviewing for jobs. No More Milk is her first book, but she has two more on the way, plus another chapbook (her third), and a text book. Things are happening, and while my time to nap at my office has severely been cut into, I couldn’t be happier or more proud. Besides, today I put the boys out in the yard with a dish of Jujubes and some sidewalk chalk and napped my ass off. No harm, no foul, Karen. Pick up some milk on the way home, as there’s no more in the fridge.

While I was at the playground with the boys today (the second playground we visited, bookending the Cubs game), I read a few stories from Russell Charles Leong’s collection Phoenix Eyes, put out by the University of Washington Press as part of its Scott and Laurie Oki Series in Asian American Studies. I hadn’t read Leong’s work before, so this was a real treat, getting into a completely new (to me) author. In any case, I read three stories—the title story, the one after that, and a random one from the middle—and without question, I’ll write about “Phoenix Eyes,” as it’s the most complex story, it best personifies what I’ve read so far, and is the title story, so you gotta think that Leong thinks these things, too.

“Phoenix Eyes” is about Terence, a Chinese-American man who at the start of the story, is about to take his vows as a Buddhist monk. He accepts all of the affirmations, things like not stealing or killing, but when he gets to the last vow he needs to profess, not having unwarranted sex, he pauses. And as it turns out, this monking ceremony is the first half of a frame, as at that moment, Terence, needing to decide whether or not he’s going to give up sex forever, launches into the retelling of the bulk of his story (though from a third-person narrator). We find out Terence was a double major in college, theater arts (set design) and business, and that his family, traditionalist Chinese immigrants, disown him because he will never marry (Terence is gay, or at least bi with a strong preference for men). He convinces himself that to get his set design career going in the States, he has to first succeed abroad, so he moves to Taipei, though he’s actually moving there for a man, an airline steward who likes to boss Terence around like a servant. When that relationship fails, Terence finds himself in China with a hundred bucks and a bagful of clothes, no parents to write for help, not a lot of prospects for getting home or finding solid employment in China. It is 1972, the precipice of Cold War policies against China being lifted by the West.

Soon, Terence runs into P., someone who recognizes Terence as exotic—i.e., a foreigner—and educated, seeing his potential as a high-price escort. With no other options (or any objections that I could find), Terence becomes a man-for-hire, whose company isn’t necessarily about sex as it is about his ability to make conversation, art, politics, current events, and know what kind of wine to order at dinner and what to wear to each restaurant.

The bulk of the story and a good hunk of Terence’s life, nearly twenty years, is spent in this capacity, under P.’s employment, tutelage, and affection. Leong enthralls us with tales of Terence’s encounters as an escort, adventures that take him all over Asia, running into all sorts of figures, learning all sorts of lessons. I wondered a bit about reliability at this point as the sex-for-money world in “Phoenix Eyes” is pretty romantic, part coming-of-age story, part hero’s journey, part Happy Hooker … anecdotes. Terence is never seemingly in danger nor questioning the path his life had taken.

Eventually—and maybe because he’s aged out of the profession—Terence returns to the U.S. and settles in Los Angeles. Aside from trying to get that set design career going—which he’d dabbled with in China, in a back-burner capacity—Terence is set on reuniting with his parents. His father’s seventieth birthday party is the occasion he chooses to make this happen, a touching scene that proves that all wounds can heal. Also notable in that scene is how Terence compares his father’s birthday party, his friends and family there to support him, to his own going-away party in China at the club from which he and P. and their escort friends operated. At that moment, I came to a greater understanding of Terence, of what Leong is saying in this story; previously, I’d been judgmental, perhaps looking at the story as a glorification of the sex industry. Really, though, this story is about finding your place, finding a community of people like you, who accept you for who you are. Terence hadn’t found that as a young, gay man in Seattle, so he went to the other side of the world to look for it; he just happened to find it in an unconventional place. Like the passing years allowed society to became more accepting of Terrence, the story kind of did that for me, making me appreciate a different interpretation of acceptance and happiness.

By the way, Terence’s dad’s party is not the end of the story, as there’s more, but I’ve gotten super-close to the end already and will leave the rest for you to discover on your own.

All the stories I read in Phoenix Eyes have that theme, young men looking for acceptance and finding it suprising places. The story after “Phoenix Eyes,” “No Bruce Lee,” features another young, gay, Chinese man in California, a guy who has to deal with the fact that every guy he tries to pick up thinks he’s Bruce Lee. The third, “A Yin and her Man,” places the protagonist in bed with a woman, discussing her boyfriend (who might walk in the door at any moment) as they make erotic, intricate love, to the point of deconstruction (the discussion, not the love-making [although …]). The title of the collection and today’s story comes from a comment a woman makes about Terence’s eyes, phoenix apparently a symbol of longing and love. I really liked all of these stories and admire Russell Charles Leong’s writing. He seems like an interesting guy, for sure, as his work as an editor and filmmaker are just as renowned, if not more, than his fiction. A real artist, this guy, my favorite kinda guy.