cultural immersion

Athens and Filopappou Hill

Settling In

Adjusting to our arrival in Athens was a bit difficult for several reasons. On the one hand, this was the first time my sister Daisy and I were in Greece as adults and had full control over where we went and what we wanted to do. No longer were we beholden to every relative or family friend with an opinion if we wanted to leave the house. Instead, with my great aunt  and grandmother so old, it felt like we should be taking care of them.

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Endless food and drink means a nap is completely unavoidable.

Of course, though, Ioulia would not hear of it. “If we could make it all this time without you all here, we can make it one more week. Don’t worry about us, sweetie,” she said as she snatched the dirty plates from my hands as I made my way to the sink to wash them (she has arthritis in her hands and knees and yet insists on cooking and cleaning for us). “And leave please leave the dishes in the sink, μανάρι μου.” Her choice of words, first guilt-inducing and then endearing reminded me how unfortunate it was that in 25 years, I have spent maybe a total of 12 months in Greece with my relatives. There are so many things we missed from each others’ lives, and seeing the “grannies” (as we often referred to our grandmother and never-ending supply of great aunts) all well into their late 70’s and 80’s really hit that home.

The other element is that we both brought our partners with us to Greece, and Daisy and I–well, mostly me because I am a ball of stress–struggled to simultaneously manage our expectations as well as theirs. Despite any crazy family drama that was likely to come about, we wanted to make sure that everyone was having a good vacation.

The most striking part about breaking back into Greece and Greek culture were Greek people themselves. I mentioned it in my last post, but this was Daisy’s first visit back in a decade and the first visit back for me after seven years. To compound the experience, Daisy spent the last three years living in upstate New York filled with some of the nicest, milquetoast people on the eastern seaboard, and I had spent the last year living in Taiwan where people are generally quick with a smile and helpful in general. I love Greece, but Greek people can be mean. They are mean even when they are actually being nice, it’s just their default setting. It is as if passive aggression is the standard setting and many people hold a defensive paranoia of being accused of some form of bad manners. In a way, dealing with (especially) blue-collar Greek people is like dealing with the old fashion New Yorker. But Daisy and I adjusted well-enough by Day 3 or 4. We are half Greek after all and from New Jersey.

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Germany gets it.

 

The Americans Visit “Grandpa Hill”

**I am going to skip our actual first trip which was to the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum. Both are wonderful destinations that anyone visiting Greece must see, but after five or six visits to the old pile of stones it’s just not interesting to me anymore.**

The hill is not actually called “Grandpa Hill,” but it’s the English translation I gave it because Φιλοπάππου (Filopappou) sounds similar to the words φίλος (filos, friend) and παππούς (pappous, grandpa). So it’s full English name should actually be “Friendy Grandpa Hill.” We chose to go for a hike this very hot and dry afternoon because it is one of the three “mountains” that you can see from the Acropolis, and a place Daisy and I had never been. It’s one of those nagging things when you go somewhere more than once you start to think, “well maybe one day I’ll go to that other place, just to see it.” Kind of like how one day I’ll go to the Empire State building in NYC, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in DC, or an Outback Steakhouse. You know, just to see what it’s like. The cool thing about Filopappou Hill, though, is that it is one of the last major landmarks between the port city of Piraeus and ancient Athens. Piraeus is still a port town, but Athens is no longer just the Acropolis and is now a vast swath of urban sprawl which includes Piraeus.

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A map of ancient Piraeus (left) and Athens (right) and the walls that lined the treacherous, long route between the two.

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Nowadays we just use the subway (grey line) and it takes like ten minutes to reach Ancient Athens (red pin)

What we didn’t expect was to encounter a totally deserted downtown Athens–that can only be described as one-part urban decay two-parts intense sunshine. Without any data plan in Greece, I pulled up a screenshot I had taken of Google Maps that morning. It’s just as good as actual Google Maps provided you are prepared not to have a zoom feature, can read in Greek, and are fully prepared to encounter roads that no longer exist.

The featured picture up top is actually the back entrance to Filopappou Hill. Other than graffiti, strewn across the ground was an assortment of garbage from every aisle in the grocery store (from condom wrapper to styrofoam). There were also a few (seemingly) abandoned structures with broken shutters, cracks in the plaster, and covered in graffiti and shaded by the errant palm tree. It was like a post-apocalyptic Miami.

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Jevon, chill as ever, rolls a cigarette to beat the heat.

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Not Sparta; Athens.

So here we are, a gaggle of American kids roaming around what is now turning into a combination of desert and a sparse evergreen forest. The sun was so hot and the air so dry that the surface of my skin felt like it was getting crispy, but I didn’t notice thirst or fatigue. It wasn’t until I stepped into the shade of a gnarled evergreen by a graffitied ancient milestone that I could feel the toll the sun and landscape was having on me. There was still more hill to climb, though. At the top of one south-facing bluff, thirsty and climbing to a high point to catch the breeze, my eyes were hit by an infinite blueness that dropped off the point of white-walled Piraeus town. The town opened into the port, which seemed so small from this distance, and the port splayed open to the Mediterranean Sea. The air was so bright and clear that the horizon was a perfect match between the blues of the sky and sea. It’s the blue of the Greek flag, the same shade that you paint tourist hotels’ shutters and roofs. It was a blueness that felt empty and full at the same time. And as I panned from the sea to the direction of the Acropolis, I was stunned at how easy it was to still pick out the shadow of the ancient road, more than 1,900 years ago. It was almost a straight shoot from port to capital, and it must have been a dangerous one. Cliffs, rocky earth, and farmlands meant that not only were we standing above an ancient road, but probably a graveyard, too.

As I dazed I could here the restless footsteps of my friends and sister. “It’s so HOT,” Daisy remarked brusquely from under a giant, black sunhat clad in a matching black romper. Hours of trying to shape and pull the hat’s brim around her face to block the changing angles of the sun had now cast a wavy Funyun-like shadow over her ruddy, rotund cheeks and face. Jevon lit a cigarette nearby. “First off,” I responded, “Jevon, don’t cause a wildfire, please. That shit is real. Secondly, let’s just skip the path winding up the hill and take a shortcut through those trees on this side.”

“Uh…Okay,” Daisy said as we started walking toward the evergreens. “Yeah, just watch out for snakes, okay?” I added as an after thought.

“What the? Are you SERIOUS? Fay, I’m not going in there if there are snakes,” Jevon only sounded half-scared, so I followed up with “I’m sure we will be okay,” and I started hiking ahead of the group. I spent six summers in Greece, but never actually saw a snake before, only tortoises, but for some reason hearing a warning about snakes was common in all my summer memories wandering into the “wilderness.” It was practically a reflex that I just warn everyone about snakes whether or not they existed.

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The sun takes a toll on Warren’s rational decision-making, but enhances his physical abilities.

Almost twenty minutes and two forks in the road later, we make it to the grand and glorious monument at the top of Filopappou Hill.

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Wait, is that it?

Needless to say, it’s pretty disappointing at the top. This was once a monument built to some important ancient-ish mayor or general as part of his funeral services. It was made out of the marble scraps of crumbling, unkempt temples and buildings built hundreds of years earlier. Then, it turned into a pile of unkempt marble scraps. If you look to the back of the monument, you can see how some people tried to “rebuild” and “restore” the original memorial by taking the scraps-of-scraps from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. You can tell by the handwriting and dates.

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Greeks have a long, weird relationship with graffiti. Also, you can see how Greeks gave up on recycling ancient marble and switched restoration practices to plaster and mortar.

We Meet Brimmy

Filopappou Hill was a major disappointment, but at least the view of the Acropolis was fantastic. Among the few tourists who also made the mistake of making a trek to Filopappou Hill, were a few couples, our group, and a lone teenager wearing an American flag tank top and thick-framed, black Rayban sunglasses. This was Brimmy. Actually, his name is Justin (I think), but ever since I added him on Snapchat, I’ve been referring to him by his handle.

Brimmy is a lanky, blond California kid no more than 18 years-old. When we asked him what he was doing in Greece alone he said, “I’m taking a gap year. Who needs college?” Brimmy is a genius. Almost in unison, Daisy, Warren, Jevon and I said “That’s SUCH a good idea.” Brimmy smiled because he felt validated. Greece was just one of his longer European stopovers, and it was for a much more noble reason than I could have imagined. Even though he looked like he belonged at a frat party, he was volunteering in Athens with a charity focused on the refugee crisis. He spent most of his days at a church teaching and playing with with little kids from all over the world. After a brief conversation with Brimmy, and after taking all the pictures we needed, we said our good-byes and headed down the hill back toward the Acropolis and eventually Monostiraki, leaving Brimmy at the top of the hill just where we found him.

A random snake charmer and one really cool tortoise later, we were back at the Acropolis park, walking along the cobbled bath that encircles the paid, gated part of the park featuring the ruins. We rounded a corner that presented us with a fork in the road: we could hike the Hill of the Nymphs, head toward the tourist traps, or take a side road into another part of downtown. But right in the middle of the fork, there was Brimmy awkwardly holding a pack of yellow American Spirits as if he was thinking about how to smoke them. We called out to him and he turned his head toward us almost instantly, surprised. He waved back and walked up to us. “You’re here, too, huh?” It was the start of a conversation everyone knew was going nowhere with no one in our group interested in extending the conversation. That awkward commentary of describing what is literally happening at the same time. Then Daisy lifted up a hand half-heartedly and saved, “well, bye!” and made the executive decision for the group to walk up the Hill of the Nymphs and leave Brimmy at the bottom of the bath. Brimmy’s face fell noticeably, even from behind the sunglasses and he made for the main path that circled the Arcopolis.

Seeing eager, young Brimmy full of hope, spontaneity, and the desire to make new friends reminded me of 2008-era Fay. It’s cheesy, I know, but after high school graduation, I left for the entire summer to finally escape the confines of parents and suburbia and I was ready to take the world by the horns. With a dejected Brimmy walking away from us, I could see just how dorky, young, and unsubtly needy I was back then. I turned to walk up the hill, but paused and said loud enough only for the group to hear, “I’m going to invite him to hang out with us.”

“What, why?” Daisy said, clearly not interested in an awkward tag-a-long.

“Because why not? He’s by himself. Where’s your spirit of American companionship?” I turned back down the slope and called his name in a half-yell, he was already on the other side of the cobbled path, and waved him over. When he saw that we were waiting for him to catch up, he broke out into a wide smile. It was like watching a puppy perk his ears up and gambol over toward his best friend.

We spent the rest of the evening hiking, talking at random, stopping for ice cream, and just enjoying the tourist experience. Brimmy said to go back to work later that evening, but European summer sunsets are languid and long, so it was hard to tell exactly what time “evening” started. Tired and sunburnt, we sat down at a restaurant at the border of the Acropolis and Monostiraki districts which specialized in μεζές (mezes are like tapas) and cheap beer. As the sun finally began to approach the horizon, Brimmy set his freshly opened beer down to check the time. It was almost 9:00 P.M. “Crap! I have to go home like now.” He chugged his beer, impressive for a kid who only graduated high school a month ago, and left us a 2 euro coin and his cigarettes as a “gift from home,” and took off.

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It’s possible Brimmy enjoyed the tourist experience too much

We Head Home

Realizing the time, I told the group to only eat a little bit because it was a guarantee that dinner was waiting for us at home and we had to some how muster the energy to get back, eat again, drink, chat with the relatives and neighbors, sleep, and wake up early enough to have a day of activities.

Already a few days into the week, we approached the subway station and only made a show of purchasing tickets for the metro. Having heard rumors that all metro transportation was free due to the economic crisis (and witnessing scores of young people not pay), we decided to be on the safe side as tourists that hitting random buttons on the machine for 30 seconds was as good as buying a ticket.

We dragged our bodies through the clean, marbled hall ways of the underground, boarded our train, and returned to our Athens HQ. At home, giagia and Ioulia had left the light on for us outside and were in the process of going to bed (by this time it was about 10:00 P.M.). When they heard us on the veranda Ioulia came rushing out to us. “Τι κάνεις, παιδιά; Είναι τόσο αργά! Πεινάς?” Just as I had expected, Ioulia had made us dinner.

“Daisy,” I called out to her as she and Warren were headed upstairs to shower, “we have to eat first.”

“Noooooooo….I’m so sleepy.”

“We have to, they have arthritis and they still cooked for us!” I knew in my heart that there would be no excuse that would satisfy my aunt. Besides, she was already inside fetching the tablecloth for us.

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The Decision to Stay

A few months ago, I decided that I wouldn’t return to the United States after my Fulbright grant ended. Instead, after a summer of visiting friends in South Korea and visiting family and travelling in Greece, I will return to Taiwan. Exit date: TBD. My reluctance to return home are as follows:

  1. Language acquisition
  2. Writing
  3. Uncertainty about graduate school, law school, or any other advanced schooling right now
  4. Unappealing American lifestyle
  5. Taiwan is beautiful

Language Acquisition

This is a pretty straight-forward reason to stay in Taiwan. It’s a lot easier to learn a language when you’re living in a country that speaks that language rather than learning it remotely. My Chinese has already improved a great deal since moving here eight months ago, but it could still go so much further. Currently, I’m looking at Kaohsiung Normal University’s Chinese language program which is more intensive, and hopefully will help me build up my oral vocabulary and reading abilities.

Writing

I have enjoyed writing ever since I was a kid, but never took it beyond a simple hobby. Unlike what you see in this blog, I write a lot in my free time. I have dozens of filled journals scattered throughout my home in NJ and Jevon’s home in NYC. I even filled three journals since I have been here with weekly reflections and the slow development of three different fiction pieces I am writing on the side. The problem is devoting enough time to a single topic in order to create a rich, final, long-form piece. I have already lived the early-20s, American, Bachelor’s degree-holder lifestyle and while it is satisfying for some people, there is no way that I could simultaneously devote myself 100% to work and to writing. It’s simply not doable. Remaining in Kaohsiung, in a low-stress, low-cost environment emerges as the logical choice.

An MA, an MPA, or a JD?

Yeah, I’m still not sure. I really thought the longer I waited to go to graduate school, the easier it would be to decide what I would study and where. Yet here I am, five years short of 30, and I still don’t think that this is the right time to take on another degree. I’ve heard that you should only go to graduate school when you know what exactly you want to do, or if you have a job waiting for you on the other side of your thesis. Graduate school in the United States is unforgivably expensive, and there is no way I’m taking on that level of risk if I’m not 105% sure of what degree I want. There is always the option of a school abroad, but few are free or low-cost for American students. While I do have my mind on some programs in the UK, China and Australia there is still a bit to think about and the application timelines to consider. I might still apply to one or two schools this year so I can have more options later, but as of right now I feel like focusing on Chinese is my priority.

An Unappealing American Life

My life in Kaohsiung is much more enjoyable than the U.S. east coast life. Unlike working in the tri-state area, you don’t feel like you’re in a rat race. People here don’t avoid eye contact on the streets, and they definitely don’t take pride in the level of jerkitude they can impress upon total strangers. Also, the polar vortex doesn’t steal locals’ souls for two months out of the year. Instead, life in Kaohsiung is more like a lazy river. Everyone’s kind of doing their own thing at their own pace, enjoying the sun and the breeze, but there’s no rush. When I’m in Kaohsiung I feel like, everything that needs to get done will get done in spite of any obstacles that seem to stand in my way.

My mind is at ease

My mind is at ease

A major reason that makes the mood and environment so much more appealing in Kaohsiung is that the lifestyle is cost efficient. As a part-time teacher here, I could fund my own language classes and still have money to afford rent, food, and pay back my student loans. The cost of Chinese language classes (or private tutors) in the U.S. is five times greater than what I can find in Taiwan while the cost of living in the U.S. is three to four times as much as what I paid living in the tri-state area. To give you an idea in the difference of cost, my rent alone in NYC was $850 a month with utilities to live in the smallest room of a three bedroom apartment. My rent in Kaohsiung for an entire house shared with one other person is $150 with utilities.

I know some people may be thinking, “Well, you don’t have to go home to the east coast. You can look for work in other parts of the U.S.” This is true. I could go to California or Tennessee or Florida and try to start over there, but then the question becomes where the heck would I start? If I went home now, the only place to go is New Jersey or NYC where I have family, friends and a sense of how the job hunt operates there. But as I said before, I’m not into that 9-5 lifestyle right now, and the U.S. isn’t known for its work-life balance. In fact, it’s famous for just the opposite, a work-life balance that commits people to high levels of stress and little free time. Now is not the time to go home. Not when I have the opportunity to do the things that I love for the a majority of my time, rather than have them as sort-of fulfilled hobbies on the side.

Taiwan is Beautiful

September sunset in Meinong

September sunset in Meinong

Holy crap this country is gorgeous. It’s a tiny, subtropical gem of life, nature, and culture floating in the aquatic space between East and Southeast Asia. It’s a place unique onto itself in its personality and its heterogeneous cultural make-up. No lie, it is probably the most culturally diverse place (considering its small size) in all of East Asia. Also, the weather here is wonderful and there is still so much more for me to see around the island that I haven’t had a chance to explore yet. I’m so happy to have had the opportunity as a Fulbright ETA in Taiwan. I have seen so many amazing places, traveled more than I expected, and got to know a lot of great people through my schools and the expat community here.

Summer weather year-round

Summer weather year-round

Mazu Temple at night in Cijin Island

Mazu Temple at night in Cijin Island

Things in America I Still Miss

  • Toasted poppy seed bagel with scallion cream cheese and a slice of tomato washed down with a cup of house brew coffee–no matter how cheap the coffee is
  • Just regular bread in general. Taiwanese bread is super sweet
  • American driving laws and logic
  • Amazon Prime
  • Thirsty Thursdays and Happy Hours
  • Pants that fit (above a size 6 is apparently obese)
  • Wearing high heels (There’s just no occasion for it here)
  • Wearing lipstick (Again, no reason to dress up here unless you want everyone to stare)
  • Going to the movies and having a choice about what to see (“Hm, we got Kings Men, Hunger Games, and Interstellar. Such options.”)
  • The unwritten sidewalk social contract that all New Yorkers abide by (Tourists and old people on the right, fast people passing left, and people eating food standing to the side and out of your way. Organized chaos, how I miss thee.)
  • Diet Coke

…and of course seeing my close friends and family. Don’t worry, America, I won’t stay away for too long. =]

Part 2 – Emergency Surgery, Operation Simplification

It took five people to lift the stretcher into the ambulance. The EMT that had been attending me, a middle aged man with a plain face and graying roots, walked over to the driver’s seat and got in. As I was being lifted, Jevon said he would follow the ambulance with his scooter and meet me at the hospital. I shouted at him to take one last look to see if I’d left anything at the crash site and then the doors closed.

In the ambulance, a young EMT–a rookie no doubt–started running through the usual questions with me. The only problem was that it was all Chinese medical terms I didn’t understand I was able to figure out some of the things he was asking, but I wasn’t certain about what exactly I was answering. The older EMT shouted at him, ta tingbudong! (She doesn’t understand!), and the rookie sheepishly hung his head over his clipboard. He focused, instead, on tasks that required little-to-no speaking. Asking me to lift my right hand, he tried to put a pulse oximeter on my index finger, or at least he tried. I looked at my hand to see why this small task required so much effort, and saw my hand shaking uncontrollably. Eventually I had to steady myself with my left hand in order to put on the oximeter.

Now that so many minutes had passed, I was on the way to the hospital, and I was almost alone, I felt inclined to burst into tears. It wasn’t that I was in incredible pain, but so much stress had built up since the moment I spotted the van accelerating into the intersection. My body needed an outlet. Still, I didn’t allow myself to give in to the mental fatigue for fear of anyone interpreting my crying as emotional or mental instability of some sort. I am, afterall, a young woman in a culturally different country where few people spoke English. I heard once, in the U.S., that young female patients were most likely not to be taken seriously by doctors. In Taiwan, I already had language and culture as two strikes against me, I was not about to take a chance and give anyone another opportunity to not take me seriously.

The ambulance took me to Cishan Hospital one town over from where I live. We pulled up to the Emergency Room entrance. The older EMT opened the back doors of the ambulance to pull the stretcher out and the rookie EMT descended as the older EMT locked the legs of the stretcher at my feet. The rookie grabbed the head of the stretcher, lowered the legs, and pulled the entire gurney onto the pavement. But at the last minute I felt my head dip a bit too low for comfort and I heard the older EMT at my feet shout, annoyed, at the rookie. Luckily, the rookie hadn’t let go of the bottom of the stretcher and now was able to correct his mistake and readjust the legs so they were locked into place—for real this time. The older EMT muttered something to himself and took over pushing the gurney into the ER, leaving the rookie with his clipboard behind.

I laughed a little to myself because for a moment I felt like I was on a TV show and this was junior’s first day on the job. Laying back and looking up, The cement ceiling changed to interior ceiling tiles and fluorescent lights, and for all the noise that I had just been immersed in, the hospital was eerily quiet. As the EMTs pushed my gurney into place beside a hospital bed, I craned my neck to take in the emergency room. It was a small-ish room (compared to the U.S.) and though all the nurses and some of the residents and doctors wore face masks, I could tell the age gap between me and most of the staff was very small.

About four hospital staff crowded over me including one man that I assumed was a doctor because he appeared to be the only one in his 30s, the EMTs were still right in front of me, a new police officer arrived, and at the foot was Jevon looking a bit helpless. Ni hui jiang guoyu ma? They asked him. “Uh, no…” and then the staff turned to me, Ni hui jiang guo yu ma? And I responded Hui, yi diandian. (I can, a little). For the next 30-40 minutes, my brain was back in overdrive as I bounced back and forth between Chinese, English and charades. They asked me to slide over to another bed and I could really feel the pain in my leg settling in. Then the background evaluation began again starting with age, blood type, allergies, and a bunch of other things.

Finally, the doctor in his 30s spoke up in English, it was limited but it was good enough. He told me they would examine the wound now and my lungs tightened. I nodded and looked away again. The reaction was more subtle this time, but still I heard the, “ahh…ssss….,” from some of the staff. The doctor looked at me, “it’s quite deep. We will have to do surgery, most likely.” I was concerned, surgery? What about just a couple of stitches? The doctor told me he would call the surgeon to come in and examine it. He covered the wound with gauze and a bandage and then he left taking all the staff with him save the older EMT and the police officer, both filling out reports off to the side.

I was relieved to see that Frank, the Taiwanese co-teacher to my roommate, and my roommate, Tiixa, had arrived. I felt a bit more grounded now that there was at least one bilingual person around. I went over again how the accident took place. Then I was wheeled to a different part of the emergency room where all the staff and authorities descended upon me at once. Fonda arrived in the middle of the frenzy.

On my left arm was a newbie resident struggling (and failing at least five times) to locate a vein in my arm to get a blood sample and insert an IV drip. At the foot of the bed a man, who appeared in his mid-to-late 30s, wearing a worn Boston Red Sox t-shirt and jeans introduced himself in fluent English as the surgeon. He explained that the wound was to be cleaned now, and two male nurses or residents snipped off more of my pants leg and cleaned my wound with saline solution and their fingers as I twitched in pain (I had rocks in the laceration). Then, on my right hand there was a new police officer, portly with glasses who was keen on smiling through all his questions that were asked only in Chinese. He spoke directly, rapidly and determinedly, insisting I answer all his questions and ignoring Frank’s attempts to translate. I pushed the limits of my comprehension and eventually realized he wanted me to make the police report NOW at that exact moment while there were two fingers inside of my knee and a newbie stabbing my arm with a needle over and over again. I said no, and then Frank shouted from the foot of the bed, “He needs you to do a breathalyzer test, it’s just a routine thing.”

*pokepoke*

*pokepoke*

You’ve gotta be kidding me, I thought, can’t it wait a minute? Before I could accept or refuse, the police officer put a black, rectangular machine in my face and told me to blow into a hard, plastic straw. The officer read the reading on the rectangle gave me a smile and a thumbs-up, wrote the result on a clipboard and headed toward the reception desk. Just then, the driver of the van that I crashed into showed up at the side of my bed. Ayy, Teng bu teng? (Does it hurt?) And I just burst out laughing. Dangran hen teng! Zhende! (Of course it hurts, really!) And he nodded and backed off a little with his hands behind his back, observing the fiasco before finally losing interest. The newb on my left was getting anxious now as he stabbed my arm for a fourth time and the hose he used to tighten around my arm fell to the floor. Zhen de ma? (Really?) I hissed at him.

Jevon and Tiixa were standing at the foot of the bed to the left watching the fail take place. “There is really too much going on,” I said aloud to no one in particular. The resident ran to the other side of the bed to try my right arm, but when he failed again, I jokingly asked, Ni zhao bu dao ma? (You can’t find it?). I felt a bit bad after I said it, after all, he was trying to help me, but he took the remark as a sign and left. A nurse in a bright pink uniform arrived and I thought, “Oh thank goodness,” but that was before she struggled to find a vein in my hand, and upon discovering a suitable candidate began to manually pump the blood out of my hand, which required stabbing my hand with the needle at least ten times. Tiixa looked on in horror.

“That was disgusting and weird,” she told me later. “I feel like it’s everyone’s first day in ER,” I said to her and Jevon, “what the HELL.”

——

As quickly as they emerged, the staff disappeared and a different nurse appeared to take me to the X-ray room. Frank and Jevon went with me and we tried to make light of the situation. I was still so worried about having fractured something. I was placed in a giant room with a blanket on top of me to keep warm. The entire hospital felt like it was at a constant temperature of 60 degrees and lying still made it feel colder. The radiologist inside was another young’un, but was very polite and attentive. At one point, the board he placed between my legs (to shield the rest of my body from the radiation) tipped and leaned heavily on my knee. I hissed and winced and he rushed over “sorry, sorry, sorry.” Meiguanxi, I responded, and he let out a surprised “oh! Ni shou Guoyu ma?” and I responded with “Dangren, wo zhuzai Taiwan, dui bu dui?” (Of course, I live in Taiwan, right?) I assumed he smiled, but because of the face mask it was only a guess based on his eyes. Buhaoyisi, buhaoyisi  (sorry, sorry) he said and we both laughed it off; him from some kind of required embarrassment and me because I just needed to laugh. As he shot cancer rays into my body, I whispered to myself over and over again, “please no broken bones.”

The English-speaking surgeon returned, still clad in his T-shirt and jeans. The attire really made it hard for me to take him seriously at first, but I figured it was just a cultural difference that I had to get over. My dad, a former mainland Chinese citizen, sports a similar style back in the States. In his opinion, anyone could wear fancy clothes but it didn’t prove their skill or intelligence. To this day I have only seen my dad wear a tie twice in his life: once, in a photo from when he and my mother were married (it was a clip-on) and once, when I was in college and he had to go to a court hearing.

I was placed back in the emergency room and the surgeon made it clear that no bones or ligaments were damaged. “Oh thank god,” I exhaled, “so nothing important was hurt?”

“No, nothing important. Just fat and skin.”

The surgeon explained to me that they couldn’t do surgery until tomorrow afternoon because the operating room was closed and the anesthesiologist was not around. After the surgery, I would have to spend another day at the hospital under observation to make sure there were no adverse reactions to the procedure. If I wanted, I could be transferred into the city at a small cost and maybe I could find a hospital that was available to do surgery right away, but it was unlikely. I opted for staying in the hospital for two nights and all the Taiwanese around my bed nodded in agreement.

Getting comfortable in my new home for the next day and a half.

Getting comfortable in my new home for the next day and a half.

I was wheeled into an overnight room where I would stay with three other female patients; all of them were more than double my age. In fact, the entire time I stayed in the hospital, I don’t think I saw a single patient in the OR ward that was under 50 years-old. I was placed in the right back corner of the room, and when I got a look at the patient in the bed across from me I realized that despite the extent of the crash, I was very lucky. She was an elderly woman and her gaze indicated that she must have been either in an immense amount of pain, drugged out of her mind, or both. An hour later, the nurses would come and take her away for surgery and I would see one of her arms splinted and both of her eyes black and blue. Her lip busted and swollen and her leg wrapped in a bandage as well. Either this woman lost a tough match in the ring or she fell off her scooter as well. Once returning from surgery she would spend the rest of the night yelling in pain for the nurses and her relatives, vomiting, and moaning. Though it was immensely disruptive and aggravating that she complained through both nights, I did pity her somewhat.

The nurses told me that after midnight I could not drink or eat until four o’clock in the afternoon the next day, so I got to work. I ate a big dinner, almost a whole sleeve of Oreo cookies, some of the sweet bread I bought earlier and the taro milk drink (both weathered the crash intact), and at least 24 ounces of water. The water was necessary, but at the time I didn’t think ahead. Since the IV drip was already hydrating me, the water I drank only served to make me need to use the toilet. It was the most painful, slow, walker-assisted trek to the bathroom. The pain from my leg was immense now and as I gripped the walker, the IV needle in my hand piercing me, I started trembling all over. Jevon came with me to the bathroom to make sure I didn’t fall and there was a point where the aching was so intense I nearly cried and gave up on the bathroom at all. I wanted to just wait until after surgery the next day, but that was impossible. Despite the pain, I managed, and I managed again three more times during the night and the next morning because I had no choice.

I passed out around midnight, just after the nurses came to check my blood pressure and IV. I was hoping to sleep well into the morning, but at five o’clock in the morning the nurses were back to check pressure and IV and turned all the blinding fluorescent lights on. Everyone was awake, cranky and in pain. When the nurses left they forgot to turn out the lights and it prompted the old women to start complaining and shouting. Finally, some courageous hero turned the lights out again and all was quiet.

My co-teachers, Sam and Justin, wanted to visit me in the hospital once they heard about the accident, so both of them would come by at one o’clock during their lunch breaks. I figured that was a good time for them to stop by since the surgery was scheduled for either one or two o’clock. That morning, I changed out of my citizen clothes and into a hospital cap and gown, which is not a flattering garment because it opens up in the back and you’re expected to be naked underneath. When the nurses arrived at 12:50 P.M. to tell me it was time to go to surgery, I decided it would be smart to go to the bathroom before they put me under.

When I opened the bathroom door to limp my way on the walker to the gurney in the hallway, I was horrified to see my colleague, Allen, peaking in through the door and several voices I recognized coming echoing from the hallway. I made an attempt at some panicked greeting and begged Jevon, who was standing behind me in the bathroom to close my gown in the back. A nurse was rushing me out of the bathroom now and I refused to move. Hell no. I was not going to greet a bunch of people from work with my ass hanging out. Finally, the nurse realized my embarrassment, giggled and said she would hold my gown closed as I walked. I thanked her profusely and hobbled forward.

My heart melted when I saw the half dozen people that showed up just to make sure I was okay. The previous night in the overnight room, I was treating the whole accident like a light-hearted event. Cracking jokes, feigning health and smiling as much as I could to make the most of a bad situation. By morning I treated everything like it wasn’t a big deal and I would be well enough for my surfing trip at the end of the month. Still, seeing how much concern a little car accident raised made me feel really thankful for having these good people in my life. Sam and Justin were both holding two big boxes of apples and an additional bag of apples as get well soon gifts. I eat apples almost every day at my schools as a way to get something healthy in my diet, and that small feature of my life didn’t go unnoticed. Justin was also holding “Get Well Soon” cards from the students and Allen had brought me Kinder chocolates, another one of my lunchtime features.

apple boxes

Two boxes with six giant apples each.

Om nom nom nom nom....

Om nom nom nom nom….

gw card1gw card2

I had just enough time to say “hello” and “thank you to everyone,” before I gingerly moved my leg onto the bed and shimmied my body on the gurney. The nurse previously holding my gown now fixed my cap to make sure no stray hairs hung out. I waved good-bye to everyone and was wheeled to the OR with the small crowd trailing a bit behind. Once we reached the doors to the operation wing, only Jevon and Frank walked on with me and the surgery team gathered around. They were a young, light-hearted group and they were excited to have an American on their operating table. They asked me questions they assumed I didn’t understand and when I responded in Chinese they were giddy. The anesthesiologist, also the oldest doctor I had seen at the hospital, told everyone that this was a great opportunity for them to practice their English—in Taiwan, all professional doctors (including this anesthesiologist) learn English because most medical books are written in English—and everyone laughed that embarrassed, knowing Taiwanese laugh. Buyao haipa (don’t be scared), I said, Wo shi yingwen laoshi. Wo ban ni jiang yingyu, (I’m an English teacher. I will help you speak English), and this time the laugh was more genuine.  Jevon and Frank stopped at the final set of doors before the operating room.

When we arrived at our final destination, a room that felt like the 1980s with green walls that matched the outfits of the doctors, one of the male surgeons stretched his arm awkwardly as he prepared a sentence in his mind. “To welcome you to our OR!” and we all had another good laugh. Xiexie nimen de gongzuo, I said in equally awful Chinese. I wanted to thank them for their work, but essentially I said, “Thank you for your job.” The anesthesiologist was at my left hand and he prepared some white looking paste for injection into my hand. “This may sting a bit,” he said, “but don’t worry.” It felt like acid entering my veins, but I got over it. One of the female surgeons held a mask over my face and I thought, “any minute now they’re going to ask me to count backwards.” I looked back at the paste in the injection needle slowly diminishing as it entered my hand. I remember starting to say something again…

Taiwan’s Little Brothers

My arrival in Taiwan in August coincided with the start of Ghost Month, the seventh month of the lunar calendar. I never saw Ghost Month celebrated in Mainland China, so one of my first encounters with the “holiday” was when I walked by a bank around 4:30 P.M. and  saw three iron bins full of fire and paper “ghost money.”

Bank workers set up an offering of food, sweets, drinks and ghost money for the spirits.

Bank workers set up an offering of food, sweets, drinks and ghost money for the spirits.

The Kaohsiung Fulbright director explained to me that Ghost Month is the time of year when all the spirits, both good and evil, coexist with the living. Making up for lost time on earth, the ghosts spend their time eating, drinking, and screwing with people’s lives.

To keep ghosts pleased and nonviolent during the month, Taiwanese call the ghosts hǎo xiōngdì(好兄弟) or “little brothers” and offer them plenty of food, sweets, drinks and ghost money. As an extra precaution, though, Taiwanese people avoid swimming, wedding celebrations and whistling because these things all provide ghosts with an opportunity to carry out mischief.

In Taiwan, there are also performances for ghosts. On Wednesday, I was walking by Kaohsiung Station near the center of the city, and just outside the station I saw a mobile concert stage set-up along with banquet-style seating and elaborate fruit baskets sheltered by tents with flowery pink and yellow themed decor. The strange thing to me, though, was that no one looked like they were there to attend the show and all the tables were empty. Later, I learned that all of the fancy tables in the front were reserved for the ghosts, so they could have the best seats to enjoy the show.

At first, I found that all of the fanfare and effort put into honoring Ghost Month was kind of ridiculous. Spending a whole month avoiding swimming or burning money and food every few days for ghosts seems a bit like overkill. But then I thought about the holiday celebrations back in the States and realized that Americans love “overkill.” Everyone knows that one neighbor that gets WAY too into Christmas lights, or that there should be a limit to dying things green for St. Patrick’s Day (looking at you, Chicago). So I stopped questioning the holiday and learned to enjoy it for what it’s worth.

Even though Ghost Month doesn’t feel like a celebratory holiday, the community shrines, temples, and offerings liven up the city and bring together those who participate. It is an interesting mood and time to be introduced to Taiwan and Kaohsiung city; everything is filled with beauty and paranoia.