Barely coming up to my waist, the little boy approached me — head down, eyes up, arms out — in one tiny hand a Sharpie and in the other a pristine white baseball, the kind made for showing, not throwing. No words were necessary; I knew what he wanted — my signature on that ball. The kid’s request shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did; similar events had been happening since my arrival in Taiwan weeks earlier and my unwarranted appearances on the evening news.
I should have been thrilled; someone wanted my autograph! All those years practicing on brown paper bag book covers and in Lisa Frank Trapper Keepers were finally paying off! But as a young daydreamer, no one tells you the first time someone asks for your autograph that it’s going to be on a small cowhide sphere, not a manageable sheet of wide-ruled loose-leaf. I hadn’t trained for this!
I cupped the ball in my left hand, turning it in my fingers as if I was looking for an ideal spot between the stitches, but really I was just procrastinating. I didn’t want to mess it up, however misguided the boy’s request was. I thought that when you became famous signing your name on a myriad of surfaces — album covers, a baby, someone’s bra — would become second nature. Instead, my warped signature looked like it was scribbled on the dashboard of a moving car. Then I smeared it. Sorry, kid. Thanks for nothing, Lisa Frank.
* * *
In 2009 I spent two months in Taipei, but it was before my plane even landed that I achieved “celebrity” status. My then-boyfriend of two years, now husband (whose name I have omitted so as to not embarrass him further), was a public figure in his own right. He, American as bald eagles — and, well, baseball — pitched for Taiwan’s most elite professional ball club. I was famous by association. However, until this moment, his decade of pro ball, including multiple stints in the Majors, did nothing to further my career as a pseudo celebrity. In America, baseball players and their girlfriends are as commonplace as yoga pants and pizza delivery. I was but a drop in the Dubble-Bubble bucket. Now, I had crossed an ocean into a land where, for reasons unknown, I had been singled-out and reveled in. Even after all of my husband’s MVP ceremonies and full front-page newspaper spreads that summer, it was the speed and intensity at which the inhabitants of this small island took to idolizing me that was astounding.
In the air over the Pacific Ocean for fourteen hours, I hadn’t exchanged words or even glances with another passenger. Finally, as our plane descended into her home country, the lady next to me asked what brought me to Taiwan. I explained I was making the trip to visit my boyfriend and naively mentioned the team he played for, the Taiwanese version of the New York Yankees. She beamed. “You are pop star? You are pop star!” I could see her thought process clear as rice vinegar: I was rocking neon pink hair, wearing my biggest “don’t bother me” designer shades, and, the kicker, I’d just offhandedly mentioned that my boyfriend was a “celebrity.” I understood now: I was the Jessica Simpson to her Tony Romo. The Posh Spice to her David Beckham. In reality, I was the girl at the zoo who made meals for the animals. I worked in vegetables and frozen mice the way pop stars work in sequins and nip-slips. I tried explaining, “Oh, no no no! You do not want to hear me sing,” but she heard, “Oh oh oh! You want to hear me sing?” She trembled with excitement. Her voice grew louder and impossibly high-pitched. She squeaked out, “And your boyfriend, he meet you at airport?!” I panicked. I pictured a mob of screaming teenagers armed with Sharpies and cell phones rushing us at baggage claim and all ability to form lies vanished. “Yes…?” Oops, I did it again.
Perhaps what was so surprising about my experience was how I achieved this status by merely existing. I’d like to say it was my talent for rolling my own 7-11 sushi or that I was “discovered” while eating potato chips with chopsticks in the cute way that I do, but I can’t be so lucky. I lack any extraordinary talent, a surname matching a hotel chain, and all ability to look easy, breezy. I was wildly ill prepared for fame, yet there I was on the rocking subway train posing for a photo, one arm around the pole for stability and the other around a man so nervous in my presence he could barely form sentences. There I was having an eleven-course dinner with a Chinese billionaire in the private dining room of the hotel he owned. There I was on the television.
I often wondered what it was they were saying, live footage of me on the screen dubbed over in ninety-mile-a-minute Mandarin. I assumed from all the admirers and pleas for signatures and selfies that it was flattering. But really, it could have been anything. Did it just so happen that I was actually the butt of every Taiwanese joke that year? Did someone witness me choking on my bubble tea or my pitiable performance in the ping-pong batting cage? Are there paparazzi photos of me eating shit-shaped ice cream at that toilet-themed restaurant?
This was seven years ago, and though social media was alive and growing, it was still pooping in its Pampers and suckling at the teat of human consumption. The platforms, the apps, the desperate need for constant stimulation in which just about anything will do makes becoming a pseudo celebrity today so much easier. For instance, take “Damn, Daniel” with his white Vans, Antoine Dodson and his plea to “hide ya kids, hide ya wife,” and Sweet Brown who declared “ain’t nobody got time fo’ that.” Even a rat dragging a slice of pizza through the New York City subway got more attention last year than most of us will ever experience. However, I achieved this status without the aid of hashtags and Snapchats. Back then, no one followed me, tweeted me or shared me, but a hell of a lot of people liked me.
* * *
Another baseball game had ended. The squids on sticks were consumed and the live footage of me in the stands had finally stopped playing on the stadium’s jumbo screen. The drummers, yes drummers, had moved on, presumably in search of karaoke and stinky tofu. The little boy and his Sharpie-stained baseball were long gone but a permanent mark in my memory. I stood, turned to leave, and froze. Nothing could have prepared me for seeing that a line had formed behind me, bursting with strangers eager to take my photo. Me! I hadn’t even washed my hair and I was sticky with sweat that only a summer in Southeast Asia could trigger. No one knew my name nor could pronounce it when I told them. How would they caption those photos?
It’s true, I didn’t understand the gratuitous attention, but maybe it wasn’t meant to be understood. I didn’t understand the language, the customs, or why the Taiwanese men carried the purses for the women, so why try to understand this? Besides, isn’t being pseudo-famous the new American dream? I chose to embrace it.
One by one they stepped up to pose with me, giggling, grinning so intensely that teeth became the only discernible facial feature, flashing the peace sign that had become a staple in photos taken on that side of the planet — and my fans were pretty thrilled too.
My time as a Taiwanese celebrity lasted only about as long as a Kardashian marriage, but the memories of locals lining up to meet me, of seeing myself discussed on the news, and of making a photo-seeker so nervous I was half-sure he was pissing himself, will last forever. Nostalgia from an anomalous life lived on the other side.
I rolled my zebra-striped suitcase past the tea stands and street meat toward my ride to the airport. It was my time to return home; my husband had another four months. And just like that, the adventure was over, leaving nothing behind but a ruined baseball and a disheartened kid who can’t get squat for my signature on Ebay.
* * *
Ashley Smith is a freelance travel writer as well as the brains and brawn behind the travel blog My Wanderlusty Life. She is now quite active on social media. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Jackie Ferrentino is a freelance illustrator based in Brooklyn, New York. You can see her work on her website, www.jackiejackie.com, follow her on Instagram @HulloJackie, Twitter @HulloJackie and her Tumblr: jackieferrentino.tumblr.com.