Thursday, April 10, 2008

Ghost Teresa

Back at my first high school, when I had to wake up in the dark to catch the bus to get there, I met a girl named Teresa. Most of the bus kids didn’t care much for me, often in the specific manner that most at this high school didn’t care for me: polite disregard. This indifference ultimately drove me to transfer, but now that I look back on it, vapor may not be the worst physical state to assume in high school. Anyway, Teresa hailed from Taiwan, which made her immediately even less popular than me. I can’t remember why, exactly, that she had reason to attend school in California and live with relatives she hadn’t met until she stepped off the plane, but think I recall her once saying that the move had something to do with home “not being safe anymore.” I never found out what that meant, and I'm pretty sure the conversation that constitutes the majority of this post had nothing to do with it.

That’s what I hope, at least.

As a rule, Teresa initiated conversations about as often as she piloted alien spaceships. But she’d at least respond when I spoke to her. If you can imagine one’s fluency in English as being an automobile gas meter, Teresa ranked just below a half-tank. However, her vocabulary could included nothing more extensive than “yes,” “no,” and “green onions” and I probably would have still sat next to her and asked questions that could best be answered with those very three responses. "Do you like having elbows?" "Are you a rabbit?" "What's your favorite component of sushi?" I’m serious. With most of the kids on the bus, interaction didn’t generally extend beyond me apologizing when my backpack hit their face as I walked down the aisle. (Only halfway through the year did I realize that the pinkish-orange smears on my backpack resulted from me sitting behind the overly made-up girls who would lean across their seats to gossip.) I knew then and even today still know little about Taiwan — I mean, really, it’s not like Taiwan makes video games, right? — so I’d ask Teresa questions about her life before she had to move to California. That subject was one of the two that seemed to make Teresa happy enough to offer her own sentences, unprompted by my questions. (The other was Lizzy, a flame-haired girl who experimented with goth attire as much as her uniform would allow. Teresa once said that Lizzy was the first redhead she’d ever seen outside of a movie or a photo.)

One day, while sitting next to Teresa on some morning bus ride, I was thumbing through a video game magazine when something caught Teresa’s attention. (Yes, by age fourteen I still read video game magazines — and in public no less. Did I mention I wasn’t popular?) Teresa pointed to an illustration of one certain video game character and asked if I knew who it was. “Hsien-Ko,” I would have said. (I can’t remember if I actually did say this, but had I spoken this particular character’s name, I would have said “Hsien-Ko.” I still have some awareness of this particular video game series.) Teresa asked me to explain the game. To the best of my ability, I explained fighting games were still a fairly popular type of arcade game in the United States, and while the big ones like Street Fighter had international line-ups of martial artists duking it out in various locations, this particular game — the awkwardly titled Darkstalkers — had monsters, such as a cheap Dracula wannabe, a Frankenstein’s monster knock-off, a poor man’s Wolfman — all designed in the style of Japanese comic book art. Essentially, by bucking the trend of typical fighting games and throwing in these goofy parodies of old horror movie characters but then redesigning them to appear as though they belonged in this context, the makers were thumbing their noses at what had quickly become a stale, derivative genre. The point was made all the more noteworthy because the Darkstalkers developers were themselves responsible for the aforementioned Street Fighter, which kickstarted the whole trend in the first place. (I imagine, of course, that I spared Teresa the majority of what I just unloaded in the previous paragraph. I did mention that I wasn’t popular, right?)

I’ve included a visual aid:

from left to right: the vampire, the frankenstein’s monster and the werewolf — each stylized to the hilt.

After the series’ debut, however, the makers ran out of stock monsters from American movies and therefore looked elsewhere. The first sequel introduced a new female character, Hsien-Ko, a Chinese ghoul described as a “kuang shi.” Being before the time when I knew how to make the internet answer all my questions, I simply lived in complete ignorance of what a kuang shi was. Hsien-Ko’s design certainly wasn’t giving me any clues.

less familiar to american eyes, as you can see.

For Teresa, however, even the heavily stylized design couldn’t hide that Hsien-Ko was a creature with which she was quite familiar.

The term “kuang shi” represented how the Japanese pronunciation of the concept might be transliterated into English, Teresa explained. In China, the creature would be called “XXXXXXX.” (I represent it in this manner because my American ears — only used to hearing Chinese along the lines of “moo goo gai pan” and “kung pao” at this point —couldn’t understand what Teresa posited was the correct term. The Wikipedia page on the subject explains that it’s “jiang shi” in Mandarin, “geungsi” in Cantonese, and “gangshi” in Korean. Since it seems to be the most widely accepted term, I’ll stick with “jiang shi” from here on out. What’s that? Oh. Yes, this is what this post is about.) As Teresa explained it, the jiang shi were dead people brought back to life through means both nefarious and magical. They often do the bidding of someone more powerful. And they draw their power from a paper talisman tacked to their foreheads, not unlike the one you see on Hsien-Ko’s hat. (Taking the video game magazine into her hands, Teresa actually translated what’s on Hsien-Ko’s talisman. I can’t remember what she said it said.) If a person tore off the paper, the jiang shi would drop dead, Teresa said, though one could alternately replace one talisman with their own and then use the jiang shi for the own schemes.

At this point, I realized I had actually been previously acquainted with this strange concept while watching some anonymous Hong Kong martial arts movie on KICU, the strange broadcast station that played a combination of Matlock, Mama’s Family and strange movies that I imagine they acquired the rights to fairly cheaply. In this one particular film, the hero fought off a horde of these paper strip-decorated bad guys, who looked like pale bodies dressed in traditional Chinese clothing. Oddly, the film has no other supernatural aspects, unless you count the fact that a guy who can kick beat legions of gun-toting gangsters. Teresa confirmed that jiang shi do, in fact, show up often in Hong Kong movies.

a still from a movie — quite possibly one titled Mr. Vampire.

Needless to say, I was instantly fascinated by these Chinese monsters, who supposedly draw out their victims’ life force — as opposed to drinking their blood or eating their brains — and move by hopping, I’d later discover.

Then Teresa threw me.

“I’ve seen them,” she declared. I asked her if she meant in movies. Clearly, she could distinguish between what she saw in movies and what she saw in real life. After all, she’d said that Lizzy was the first redhead she’d ever seen in person. Teresa — a high school-aged girl living in California in 1997 — again claimed that she’d seen the jiang shi walking around in the open in Taiwan. Maybe she was joking. Maybe the language barrier stopped that joke somewhere between her brain and mine. Maybe she said the wrong word. Twice. Whatever happened, the notion was communicated to me — clearly, if accidentally — that she thought she had actually seen a jiang shi, a Chinese hopping vampire, some kind of real-life version of the thing on the page of the magazine.

I don’t remember how the conversation ended, though I’m certain that I never brought the subject up with Teresa again. I doubt I could have hid my initial surprise at her claim, and I feel like I chose not to press the matter for fear that doing so would have made Teresa feel stupid. Really, how can you clarify the mater without condescending? “When you say you saw this thing, you realize that it’s not real, right? That you’re either mistaken or crazy? That somehow growing up in Taiwan has apparently prevented you from distinguishing real things and imaginary things?”

The matter ended there, for the most part, though I realize now that this constitutes the second post on this blog detailing some convergence of video games, Asian culture, the name “Teresa” and the undead.

There’s an epilogue, I suppose.

Later, toward the end of my career at this first high school, I was reminded of the jiang shi conversation. The bus that took me to and from Hollister picked up at the girls’ school first, then the guys’ school. If a girl missed the first bus, she could run one block over and still catch it at the guys’ school. One rainy day, while I waited in line to board the bus, I saw Teresa, umbrella in hand, run up behind us. For an instant, the Velcro strap — the piece of fabric that wraps around the closed umbrella to keep it from popping open — flopped directly against Teresa’s wet forehead so that it hung down over her nose. The instant she peeled it off, I was reminded of the jiang shi and Teresa’s story.

I transferred schools and never saw Teresa again, though I think of her whenever I stumble across some random jiang shi reference — there apparently was one in the Game Boy title Super Mario Land, which I only recently learned of and which would have to constitute my first exposure to the concept — or see some Darkstalkers cabinet in some pizza parlor or laundromat. The video game Darkstalkers received a few more sequels but has otherwise fallen by the wayside, in favor of more mainstream series. (In an effort to rejuvenate the series in later years, even stranger fighters showed up — Little Red Riding Hood and the Grim Reaper among them. And as for the jiang shi themselves, I imagine that they continue to hop about, whether in Hong Kong action movies or in real-life Taiwanese cemeteries and back alleys.

In light of the jiang shi conversation, I now think back back to my vague memory of Teresa's reason for leaving Taiwan — it not being safe, for some unspecified reason — and wonder if her purported jiang shi sighting motivated the move. A person could have worse reasons for moving to California, I guess.


  1. Ah ha, but a similar situation happened to me about a year ago when I was living in student housing.

    One of my roommates was a girl from Haiti. Now, being from central Florida, I had never met a Haitian person in my life. So, I proceeded to ask her about the culture and everything cause I was curious. One of our other roommates busts out with "Do you practice Voodoo?" Now, I had only ever heard of Voodoo and Haiti in a Bela Lugosi movie so I didn't think that had any fact base, but she said that she didn't, but her grandma did.

    So I thought that was kinda cool and we went on with life. Later, the other roommate rented the skeleton key and we were watching that. During the movie the Haitian roommate was pointing out the accuracies and the things that were just silly... then she proceeded to tell us about how she had actually seen zombies on several occasions.

    Of course, being jerk college girls we say, "You're full of shit." Then she told us about how she had gone to people's funerals and then seen them about a month later walking around, looking at the ground and not talking to anyone. She said that people knew they were zombies so they just didn't talk to them. To her it seemed the most normal thing in the world.

  2. Wow. I can honestly say that I didn't expect anybody to have a story similar to mine. I wonder what happens when you meet Romanian kids?