The Virtual Machine

The evening before they would get married at City Hall, Chia-wei told Peter what happened to the English teacher. Chia-wei did not say anything at the meeting, and that contributed to the firing.

That winter, one parent wondered why Sebastian put Tennessee Williams on the reading list, even though it was entirely optional (and really beyond the high schoolers’ level). The question was passed down through the head of academic affairs, and Sebastian told her that he believed it beneficial to learn about life through the lens of literature. There are so many aspects in life, and dysfunction is one of them. Besides, he was amused that someone had reached the bottom of his reading list. He thought no one ever bothered.

The head of academic affairs was a few years Sebastian’s junior. She said she would rephrase his words and get back to the parent, but she wanted to let Seba (that’s the name he wanted people he felt close to him to use) know that times had changed, that these days parents did care a lot about what teachers said or wrote, and it might be safer if he would be a little less glib when confronted.

I am just being genuine, Sebastian told her, and isn’t that what our time is and should be about, he added.

I understand and agree, she told him, but perhaps not everyone appreciates that. She said she was aware of his blog. Sebastian was an early blogger, and she believed his words when he said he never shared it with his current students. But perhaps just be a little more discreet, she said. You never know what people are going to say over things they find on the open internet. She had already had some glimpse of it, and she would not always be able to stop people showing up at parent-teacher conferences with their pitchforks.

Metaphorically you mean, said Sebastian. Grant Wood. Perhaps I should talk about the painting at some point in my class.

Seba, she pleaded, I’ve always respected you as a teacher in our senior ranks, but I have a responsibility, and I want you to know that you need to be careful.

Maybe I should, he thanked her, maybe I should.

A few weeks later, the school received a letter of complaint, signed by a dozen of parents. At the start of the spring semester, the students were told that Mr. Kao would not come back.

Some of them knew that Sebastian was going to retire soon, and this was supposed to be his last semester. When they asked Chia-wei about it, he could only tell them that it was not an early retirement, but he didn’t know anything beyond that.

In fact, he knew. They fired him a few months before he was eligible for pension.

They took a long walk to the park. Peter would usually talk about his day at work, but today Peter was silent for a long time.

“I don’t remember I asked you about Seba,” Peter finally said.

“You didn’t.”

“So you didn’t lie to me.”

“Not to you,” Chia-wei sighed.

“But you told others you didn’t know anything other than it was not an early retirement.”

“It was true that it was not an early retirement, but it was not true that I didn’t know more.”

“So you lied to them.”

“I had been avoiding to admit that. But yes, I lied.”

“You know I’d always suspected there was more to it,” said Peter, “that Seba got replaced by a boring hack, and that Seba wasn’t sick or something. I felt we were treated like five-year-olds, but even children of that age already know grown-ups are hiding something from them, and we were already teenagers then.”

“I know you’re upset.”

“Are you telling me all this one night before so that you can feel better? To exculpate yourself even?”

“No. The thing is… I’ve been telling you that sometimes I felt I did nothing to deserve our relationship, and I did nothing to deserve coming to the city, living with the comfort and enjoying the fruits of other people’s struggles. And you reassured me that I didn’t have to think about it that way. Often in life there’s nothing we did that put us where we are, doing what we do. Remember you told me that? But I want to tell you that there was this one occasion that I did nothing, and things happened. Seba was your favorite English teacher, and he could have enjoyed what we’re enjoying now, perhaps even planned what we’ve planned, with someone he truly wanted to be together with.”

“Then why are you only telling me this now?”

“I’m afraid.”

“Of what?”

“I’m afraid of losing you if you find out in the future.”

“But now I found out. You are not afraid of losing me right here?”

“I don’t know. I thought it’d be up to you. But I’d rather that you learned what happened through my own words, than you realize one day that your partner who did nothing to deserve you also did nothing to stand up against the punishment that Seba didn’t deserve.”

Chia-wei wondered why Sebastian told him about his blog. Call me Seba, he said. Chia-wei had already made his name as a successful computer teacher in the school, a subject that was not required by the college entrance exam. Probably because that was the new thing on the internet and Mr. Kao wanted to find someone to share his excitement with? But perhaps Chia-wei was the only person in the office that he could talk to about his blogging.

Seba blogged about his life as a late-bloomer, and about the relationship with a college sophomore. He wrote that his first fifty-some years of life of aimless wandering, with the past two decades feeling like walking on a parched land. And finally, this young man reminded him of the joy that remained to be found. His blog was titled s’épanouir: to flourish, to blossom, and he liked the fact that his could freely put the right accent on his favorite word, the fact that accented words could finally co-exist with his other writings in Chinese thanks to Unicode, the fact that he finally felt he was living in good times after all, that he could finally put his feelings in words without fear or needing to hide. To reveal oneself, to no longer hide—isn’t that exactly what the word aletheia, or truth, means? But Seba also wrote about prosaic things, and some of those could make Chia-wei blush: “I must have loved so loudly, that when we checked out the next morning, the hotel manager asked him if everything was alright.”

Seba was proud that his partner was an alum of the school he taught at. It was clear, to anyone that actually read his blog, that they got to know each other after his partner graduated from the school, but Chia-wei had to wonder whether that was what spooked the parents.

Eventually the head of academic affairs set up a committee of fifteen to decide the matter. Chia-wei was surprised that he got selected. The head told him that the priority of her office was to keep a lid on the matter, because “one of the parents works in the media.” She said the vice chair of the committee felt very strongly about the parents’ complaint, but she wouldn’t say more.

The day came. Seba was not invited. The chair explained that it was not an occasion for the person in question to defend themselves. The complaint’s allegations were true, and Sebastian’s blog was still up. Firing would be the norm, but the chair said a committee was required to give a unanimous recommendation. Hence the meeting.

The vice chair spoke, “I have to remind you all that our moral character is on the line. The teacher’s comportment befits what they call ‘gross indecency’ in English. We are all graduates from Normal Universities or Normal Colleges, and I don’t need to reiterate why ‘normal’ is there in your alma maters’ English names. We are the standard bearers of the society, and the society looks up to us to uphold the norms. You all see the connection now? The rules dictate that the recommendation be unanimous, and it’s what it is. We are a so-called democratic and free society now, aren’t we? You are entitled to your opinion, but let’s not forget that your peers are going to put under scrutiny what you’re going to say or not say for the rest of your career.”

The vice chair usually cited platitude from Chinese classics. This time he was showing off his command of English terms, thought Chia-wei. Yes, Seba did write about how he “loved loudly”, but this guy didn’t have an idea of what gross indecency really means, and the whole thing was a big non sequitur.

Chia-wei was still entertaining the vice chair’s words when the chair announced: “... and after a careful deliberation, there were no objections to the suggested punishment. The committee unanimously recommends dismissal.”

“You are probably being too hard on yourself,” said Peter. “Now I realized there was such a committee, and it was all so unjust to Seba.”

“I don’t know. At the time, my mind must have gone blank.”

“Do you really think things would have turned out differently, if someone said something?”

“I once thought that way. If someone had said something. It’s not that the people who got invited to the panel didn’t know Seba. Many of them, let me just put it this way, would have been easier targets for those parents if they got to talk to them in person. Do you know what I mean? The history teacher on the panel was a big fan of Puccini, and the students called him la grande dame behind his back. Now I think about it, the vice chair probably picked the members on purpose, he knew…. Now I only have myself to blame. It’s not if someone had said something. It’s if I had said something. All these days, I regret that I didn’t say anything. Things back home became better, and I wasn’t part of it. Then I’ve decided to join you here, and things are already pretty good, imperfect they are sometimes, of course, but I also didn’t do a thing to contribute to this. I didn’t do a thing to deserve the life I’m having here, with you.”

“This is hard for me. Chia-wei, I appreciate your courage to tell me what really happened and your role in it, but I need some time.”

“I understand.”

They decided to walk separately back home. Their long-distance relationship had gone on for many years, and every time when one visited the other, they almost always spent their walking time together. This is probably the first time, Chia-wei thought, that after dinner they went on their respective ways. He shuddered at the thought. He was only eight years Peter’s senior, but he felt older. When he tendered his resignation, the principal (the same person that used to run the office of academic affairs) asked him questions. To join a relative, he told her. Why, you never told us you had relatives there, she said. She even offered him a generous leave of absence. Not exactly fully paid, she said, but the numbers would continue to accrue. Think of it as a kind of sabbatical.

Now he thought about it: was she trying to make up for what they did to Seba? The vice chair went on to become a powerful person in the local district and then an elected politician. Who knows, maybe some of the parents who filed the complaint had even helped him get elected. You know you’re giving up the years you’ve worked here, she said. Yes I know, said Chia-wei, but that’s the right thing to do. What do you mean, the right thing? She asked. Nothing, he said, just that I always think that one shouldn’t be rewarded for things they didn’t work on. Don’t be silly, she said, it’s not a reward, and it’s just something that the school can offer, and, actually, what I can offer. Please, she said, think about it.

When Chia-wei showed up at her office again the next day, she already knew the answer. You know what this means to your pension, she said. Yes, I know what it means. So he resigned, his twenty-five years of work there coming to an end. He turned down her offer to having a send-off ceremony. She said since it was not an official retirement, she was more than happy to invite colleagues out of her own pocket. She looked hurt when he told her he already bought the ticket. One-way. He really didn’t need to add that last one word. I still have useful life left in me, he said, and I’ll do my best. They thanked each other, and he excused himself.

Now, all this may end up with nothing, all those years he and Peter spent together. If Peter decided to call it off, he would have to buy the return ticket soon. He didn’t know why he said he still had useful life left in him. Probably he was just trying to assuage the sadness in their conversation.

He still had some savings back at home. A month ago he was planning to wire everything here and close the accounts. Now his savings might soon be all that was left to him. Yes, he could ask his two elder brothers and relatives and past colleagues and friends if he really needed to. Or he could try to work as a substitute teacher. Sebastian probably had a few stints after he got fired, from what he had heard. It must not have been enough to cover his medical expenses. Destitute. He quivered upon thinking the word. After all he had done, thought Chia-wei. Or rather, after all he had not done: the only right thing to do is to give up something that they want to give to you but your late colleague was deprived of.

His relationship with Peter started a few years ago, when Peter came back to visit his family and attended a class reunion. The alums always invited Chia-wei: he advised many of them on their science fair projects. They hadn’t seen each other for a long time, and by chance they sat at the same table. Peter was already a very successful software engineer, but he told everyone he was very jaded. Chia-wei asked him all kinds of questions. How did you do this? Your company still uses that programming language? Really, you have that much spam per day? Peter was amused, and said he felt like being at a recruiting event, answering questions to an enthusiastic college student looking for an internship. He gave Chia-wei his personal email address, and told him to keep it to himself—that was not the one he gave to the alum association. Chia-wei did email him to follow up, which amused Peter even more. He replied to Chia-wei, in English, that they should grab coffee. It just so happened that la grande dame, the history teacher, had two tickets to an opera night (featuring, among other arias, “O mio babbino caro”) at the National Theater but he couldn’t go. Chia-wei told Peter he knew little about opera, but they could chit-chat afterwards. And so it began.

It was towards the end of his first visit to Peter that Chia-wei realized their teacher-student roles were reversed. Peter showed him around, introduced him to his friends, and used the words and idioms that he barely recognized: how Peter just had a convo with his director, a one-on-one with his report, did a solid for an ally at work, and, of course, pinged a slacker because they hadn’t got back to his review comments. A lot of those was corp-speak, Peter shrugged, but Chia-wei was absorbing them with eyes wide open, and that reminded him of the first few years when he was still a new arrival in this country.

Peter once told him that his patrician family was big enough that no one minded a black sheep. He, like Chia-wei, was the youngest child. Everyone assumed Peter would just follow the footsteps of his brother and sister and check all the boxes. Peter expected drama and fights as he expressed his desire to part ways with his family over time, but there wasn’t much. He was almost ten years his sister’s junior, and by the time Peter graduated from college, his father was already an emeritus professor of a medical school and started giving talks all over the world, traveling with his mother. He was honest with Chia-wei when he said that, yes, throughout these years, he of course experienced a gamut of relationships, but ultimately they all turned out very unsatisfying. He told Chia-wei that he was his secret crush in school, when Chia-wei was still a recent graduate and designed a curriculum with youthful passion, and he was glad that they met each other again. Plus, he was happy that he’d got someone to speak Mandarin with after work.

Chia-wei told Peter that, in comparison, his life was a series of disappointments. His father never really accepted that Chia-wei settled as a computer teacher. How could you always take the path of least resistance, his father often chided him. After college he first worked as a substitute math teacher at Peter’s high school, and he was offered a full-time job to teach computers after it was clear that the star of the school would come back after his cancer treatment. Overall he was content with the job he had, and the science fair projects he advised won the school many national awards. But there was no hope pleasing his father. A year before he passed away, he called Chia-wei, and said he read it somewhere that a bigwig talked about how software was “eating the world”, and asked Chia-wei how come he was still working at the same high school when many of the students he advised were having successful careers. It never ended.

Chia-wei walked by the café where they often went to spend their Sunday mornings. It was already closed at this hour. For a relatively big city like this, cafés closed surprisingly early. Peter told him that he once bought into the notion that this was a very health-conscious city, and the leadership at his company prided themselves of getting up at 5 AM if not at stranger hours. Only later he found out there was a more plausible and more mundane explanation: those types have to get up when Wall Street does, and somehow they spun it as having a great work ethic and self discipline. At the time, Peter often called himself a cynic, saying he felt the gap between the lofty ideals his peers rah-rahed and what he had experienced on the ground was unbridgeable, all the while Chia-wei listened to Peter in awe and countered: at least you have ideals to talk about. Perhaps, now thought Chia-wei, he brought some outsider’s freshness to their relationship: Peter had seen it all, and he still thought it a brave new world.

Or maybe he had also seen it all, unfulfillment and disappointments of all shades? He recalled telling Peter how his people had this habit of encoding family history and aspirations in their names. Chin-sheng, or born in Quemoy. Tai-sheng, or born in Taiwan. But the names of his two elder brother’s and his own represented aspirations that were far more domestic. Chia-chʻi (his father forbade them from romanizing the names with j’s or q’s), or family-governed, was given to the eldest when his father still had ambitions to climb the ladder in his government job, his family firmly in place to back him up. Chia-ho, or family-harmony, to the second boy when their mother started to drift away. Chia-wei, or family-glory, likely a last-ditch effort to keep the family together, not long before their parents’ estrangement was complete. He remembered spending part of childhood with his maternal grandparents, and he told Peter that’s how he could speak “Hokkien” (he was never sure what the language really should be called), broken as his was. His father once wished to have a big family, but his two PhD brothers vowed to never have children, and he knew since college that he would never marry a woman.

Perhaps, Chia-wei thought, his being okay with where he was, his lack of ambition, his aloofness, of some sort, all this was not so dissimilar from his father. Of course, unlike his father, he was not bitter, but somehow they both seemed to have shared this hardened shell, and he had to wonder how much of that was formed as a reaction to an order that was imposed on you, a world that you didn’t agree with.

His father was a bean counter who came with the government to what he called a foreign island. He didn’t speak Mandarin growing up, but so were the people on the island. He was the only Midlander in an office full of Northerners, and in the early years he was often teased for his inability to articulate those retroflex consonants (the ch, ch’, sh, and j), and later some would insinuate that it was his colleagues’ bad decisions that caused the hyperinflation, which was one main reason they were deprived of the snowy winter they pined for. Those things were thrown at him and it was all very unfair. He once protested, at home, that he was only a lowly functionary, and things were outside of his control.

It was his father’s never feeling comfortable everywhere and speaking a language that was not his native tongue all throughout his life that led to his notion of living like a virtual machine. Some people, said Chia-wei, are lucky to live on their native land, speak their native language, to always run themselves in the native mode: there are no translations involved, the world is not foreign to you, and you don’t see yourself as a boundary—an interface, really—through which the codes of the society passed, got translated, interpreted, and then you produce something, translate it again, and pass it out the membrane and boundary. In many ways, it’s a safe thing to do. The process of translation gives one a chance to never execute any code that would damage their native core, and the translated output is always guaranteed to be correct and accepted by the outside world. In other words, the codes of a society get sandboxed, and the likes of his father get to navigate at least safely in a world that is not just foreign but sometimes also hostile to them.

Chia-wei talked about all this at the café he just passed by, and that morning they were having brunch with a few friends of Peter’s. By then, Peter started feeling weary of Chia-wei’s tendency of freely associating computer science concepts with things in life. The analogies felt fresh at first, but now they sounded sophomoric. Chia-wei majored in math, but he was fascinated by Alan Turing’s formulation of a computing machine that could be programmed to do any kind of computation, including emulating such a computing machine like itself, and the emulated machine can still do any kind of computation, including emulating itself, and so on…. It was the fascination that motivated him to become a computer teacher. Plus, Chia-wei asked, didn’t the idea of virtual machines give birth to the industry of cloud computing, which in turn gives every one of you here your job? And it can also go another way: didn’t someone recently moot the idea that we all live in a simulation? Maybe the phenomenon that is the world is purely the result of code interpretation inside us…

“Come on, Chia-wei, I thought we all talked about that at some point in high school,” sniped Peter.

“Don’t interrupt him, Peter,” said one of his colleagues, “you have all the advantages of having a formal training, and only now I knew you had entertained those ideas when you were much younger.”

“It’s all Chia-wei’s fault, he took advantage of the fact that what he taught was not a required subject in the exam, and talked about all that random stuff,” said Peter, “and I thought none of them is particularly new at this point.”

“It is never new at any point,” said Claire, another colleagues of his, “people already talked about the world being a simulation two millennia ago.”

“No way,” said Peter.

“Go look it up,” she said, “it’s a Western canon.”

“I actually love the chat we’re having,” said yet another colleague of his, “I like the fact that we’re revisiting those ideas every now and then, even if it’s something you thought you’d heard all in high school.”

“For fun,” said Peter.

“Nah, not just that. For one thing, I never buy into the notion that the world is purely interpretation. Even computers are not pure abstract constructs,” said the colleague.

“How come they are not pure? Everything a computer does can be described mathematically. You know, computability, all that jazz.”

“But we humans have made those machines to create effects on the world. To move atoms. To make stuff and buy stuff. And to share cat pictures and selfies, with other people. We have made those seemingly pure machines to affect others, in a word. At the very least, they interact with the physical world, and we all know the physical world is messy and not pure.”

“He should know, he manages hardware,” Peter pointed him to Chia-wei.

“But seriously, even if it’s pure,” said Claire, “perhaps ‘we humans are not really at home in an interpreted world,’ a poet wrote that long time ago.”

“Who wrote that?” asked Chia-wei.

“Rainer Maria Rilke.”

Who, if I cried, would hear me from the Angelic Orders? Chia-wei recalled the opening line of Rilke’s Duino Elegies as he approached Peter’s apartment. Written in the early twentieth century, its subject matter is as far removed as can be from what they talked about that morning, but it is only appropriate now, he thought. He once asked Peter to read the opening lines to him, and even if he couldn’t speak the language, he still vaguely remembered how it sounded: Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen?….

He wasn’t sure if he wanted to go back in now. He wanted to find a place to sit and catch breath, but he did not want to sit in a crowded bar, nor did he want to drink. Perhaps Peter was right after all: that morning, he mangled so many ideas, and his enthusiastic rambling was simply not coherent. He was, or had been, a high school teacher after all. But he enjoyed chatting with Peter’s friends and colleagues, even when they were making snide remarks.

It might all come to an end tonight, thought Chia-wei, and he had seen what good times would look like and feel like.

If Sebastian were still alive, he wondered, could he be chatting with his and his partner’s friends, like that one time he did with Peter’s? Would Sebastian enjoy talking about simulacrum? He and Peter could have invited them to the city, to have a stroll in the Castro District, to enjoy a moment of life where you could be fully genuine and open to the world? Perhaps they could have even introduced Claire to him, and they would have a good time talking about Rilke?

I was wrong about the notion of the virtual machine, thought Chia-wei. Peter’s colleague was right. We don’t live as a box that purely translates codes in and out. What we do or don’t do has effects on other people. He missed the chance to stand up and say something. He owed to Seba all those years he was with Peter, in retrospect, all those years he didn’t feel alone. There was an obligation to stand up for him, and he failed that obligation.

That’s why he had to tell Peter what really happened. He already failed Sebastian. He didn’t want to fail Peter, even if that meant the end of their relationship. The world abandoned Sebastian, and it was only fair that he was left alone again.

Chia-wei and Peter exchanged vows at the rotunda of City Hall. Oro en paz, fierro en guerra, read the motto of the seal that appeared on their marriage license. Gold and iron: Peter told Chia-wei about the two things that defined the city’s character. While many know how the city came to be during the gold rush, the railroads played its role in the background. It was the fervor to exclude the people who built the railroads that gave the shape of today’s China Town. It was the desire to counter the concentrated power of the railroad moguls that led to the fragmented counties, and, some may say, dysfunctional politics of the place. The gold rush was long gone though opportunists abounded in the tech industry, and the city still didn’t have adequate railroad coverage. The history doesn’t seem ever gone, and it continues to give the city its quirks and frustrate people every now and then.

They had a long talk after they both came back the previous night. Peter arrived home first, and said he tried to look up how Sebastian died. His blog was long gone, but the Internet Archive kept a copy, and his last post was the final stanzas of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.”

Peter told Chia-wei that he could have kept it all to himself, and as his partner he wouldn’t have minded. Does that mean you have decided? asked Chia-wei. I have, said Peter, and I’ll see you tomorrow at City Hall. It is a shock to me, said Peter, and I think I’ll need some time to fully process it, but I’m surprised that you chose to tell me after all.

I have to, Chia-wei told him.

Peter wanted Chia-wei to think what they could do anything for Sebastian. Nothing would bring him back, but Peter felt they should do something together for him, in memory of him, to honor him.

Chia-wei remembered that Sebastian had a half-sister, and they eventually found her. She said Seba broke up with his partner after he learned about his terminal illness. It was a quick decline. She informed the young man of the death of her brother, and she said she would never forget the howl over the line.

Is there anything we could do, asked Peter. Well no, or maybe, she said. Seba was close to father, and before father passed away, he said he wished to be buried back home. Seba was born here and said this was his home, but he wanted father to be back with his family. It was impossible for either of us, and Seba told me before he died that the son disappointed his old man.

Chia-wei and Peter started finding people who could make that happen. They got in touch with a clan association and asked about bringing the urn back. At first they were excited, saying their leaders and some higher-up in the party wanted to make it a great homecoming story. After Chai-wei and Peter had explained the family history and who they were, all their subsequent calls went unanswered.

Then, a few months later, they got a call from a woman. She sounded young, and introduced herself as the new secretary at the clan association, and she was going through the files. She said “it was not the homecoming story they were looking for”, but asked them to write down the address of a columbarium and a lot number. “That’s where the Gao clan is. Tell the guard that I sent you there, and good luck.”

They went back and met with Sebastian’s half-sister. She lived alone, her partner having recently passed away. They paid respect to Seba. We will carry on for you, said Chia-wei, one hand stroking the engraved characters, and we will come back.

That afternoon, they passed the security check. Chia-wei put down a backpack that he was wearing on his chest. When the conveyor belt paused, he told the agents what it was. The backpack came out of the machine. Peter nodded, and Chia-wei put it back on.

Soon, it was boarding time. Chia-wei held Peter’s hand, looked at the backpack, and whispered, “Uncle Kao, we are taking you home.”