It’s been a long time. That is totally my fault, I know. There always seems to be a lesson to write or a class to prepare for or a meeting to scurry off to, and when I do get a free moment, I usually just want to sit down and rest, you know? Of course, this isn’t an excuse, and I am sorry that you feel a little…out of touch with my life here right now. I told you from the beginning that I would make a point of being available, and these past two months, I don’t know. I just haven’t been there like I said I would be.
I wish that I had a valid excuse, something that would make my absence completely forgivable. But the honest truth is this: I am no longer required to write mandatory biweekly cultural reports for my Fulbright advisors, and thus, my incentive to write is at an all-time low. There are two major coping mechanisms that I have devised to combat this issue. One is Pathetic Avoidance. Using this strategy, I skirt around my laptop with sheepish, sideways glances, avoiding eye-screen contact as one avoids a text message left unread for far too long. This method, while effective at pulling me away from the deep, dark rabbit holes of the Internet, is not practical. I have a job here that requires the use of email.
This, then, leads me to my second approach, Productivity Blindside. With Productivity Blindside, I open my laptop with purpose, and before there is any mention of “blog” or “writing,” I am furiously typing away at items on the bulleted list in my agenda book. The clacking of fingers on the keyboard drowns out any unwanted reminders of what I might be putting off or refusing to acknowledge. And while this approach might raise my blood pressure in the frenzy of efficiency, it has allowed me to go almost two months without making any attempt at blogging.
But it is time, now, to face the music. In the best way I know how.
This post will detail the Reasons Why We Haven’t Talked. The things that have pulled me away from the computer these past two months, the things that have kept me from dropping a line or two. And maybe then, oh treasured reader, will this apology suffice.
Reason #1: FulBoat: A Tale of Ten Practices
Every time that I have lived in/visited China or Taiwan, I always just miss the biggest summer celebration of the Chinese calendar, the Dragon Boat Festival. Dragon Boat Festival is a time when families come together to eat zongzi, sticky rice dumplings, and watch long, brilliantly painted wooden boats race each other from the riverside. It always seemed like such a grand spectacle, and I was excited to be in Taiwan for the event this year. I did not anticipate, however, that I would have the opportunity to participate in the actual races!
We formed a team with other foreign students who take Chinese classes at Fo Guang University. Six countries were represented on our boat in total, including rowers from Vietnam, South Korea, Germany, the United States, Paraguay, and Ecuador. Fo Guang hired a coach who had serious racing experience and promptly sent us a schedule of practices before the big event. At this point, I think that we eight Fulbrighters were quite happy with ourselves. We were “going native,” integrating into the culture of this country, rowing in their dragon boat races. We were just so cultured, basically Taiwanese.
It was only when I mentioned our grand scheme to Huang Laoshi that I realized what I had signed up to do. We were sitting in the car before school, and I said that I would probably be sore quite soon, because of dragon boat practices. I tried to make it as casual as possible, like I was merely stating something that had just popped into mind out of the blue. But instead of awed surprise, Huang Laoshi’s face curled in on itself a little incredulously. She said, “Huh?” and, even before she had a chance to recompose herself, I knew that I had made a bad decision. Her expression said enough.
After clarifying that we were, indeed, interested in rowing a boat down Yilan River competitively, she switched to English and shrieked, “Dirty! So dirty!” I couldn’t argue with that. Yilan River looked slow-moving, practically stagnant with algae and debris. I nodded in recognition. But this was only the first of many misgivings Laoshi had with FulBoat (clever, no??).
Not only did we have no experience rowing boats, we were also a group of foreigners with six different languages spoken among us, following instructions from a Taiwanese coach with varying degrees of success that directly corresponded to our Chinese fluency. Oftentimes, our coach would deliver his words of wisdom in Mandarin, which would then be translated into English first, then Spanish, and usually Korean before we all came to a sort-of understanding. This meant that our boat often sounded like a floating Tower of Babel, confusing not only to passersby, but to us rowers as well.
We were also scheduled to compete against a team from Yilan University: students, most likely athletes, who have competed in dragon boat races from a young age, therefore with years of experience. This would not be nearly as demoralizing if, during one of our first practices, we hadn’t met a group of high school boys practicing with their team. In all seriousness, these high school boys were some of the buffest Asians I had ever seen in my life. Their thigh muscles looked they had been sculpted by an ancient Greek artist depicting gods. I had never felt that thighs were intimidating until that moment. And these were only the high schoolers. I couldn’t imagine what the college students’ (thighs) would look like.
With all of these odds stacked against us, our rag-tag team of foreigners threw our hearts into learning the basics of rowing and the importance of staying in sync. We pseudo-rowed on land first and then graduated to boats. After the first three or four practices, I was becoming more and more comfortable with an oar in my hand. There was a brief moment of hope, when I decided that the time we had left would be enough to keep us from embarrassing ourselves during the competition at least.
Unfortunately, this would not be the case, as practice after practice after practice was cancelled due to heavy rains and storming. This should come as no surprise to us, having lived in rainy Yilan the past ten months. It did became slightly problematic, however, when I began wishing for the rains to come, to sweep the boats away and give me an excuse for napping on a now-free Friday afternoon.
I realized early on that I didn’t enjoy dragon boat practice. The water splashing up into the boat, the special frustration of relying on team members that were only mere acquaintances at the time, leaving practice smelling of dirty river water and someone else’s sweat from the communal lifejackets. But I stuck it out for the team, only silently wishing that rain would again pelt our quiet county and keep our boat shored. It was a fairly reasonable wish that was granted all too frequently, putting us in a great predicament come race day.
Our team had only completed ten practices, barely scraping by with the absolute minimum number of meetings to qualify us for competition. And we would be competing against teams that had met daily for intense, demanding rowing practices, months before we even thought about forming a team. To my surprise, we won two of the races that we rowed and came in tenth out of fourteen teams.
It isn’t important to mention that a team of middle school girls knocked us out of the competition with their racing times. Personal best.
Reason #2: I Promise I Don’t Have TB
In previous posts, I have mentioned the efficiency and affordability of Taiwanese healthcare. I spend significantly less time waiting for my appointment here than in an American doctor’s office, and any prescriptions that I need are filled within ten minutes of leaving my appointment. Furthermore, each doctor’s visit cost 150 NTD, which translates to about five American dollars with my Taiwanese health insurance.
It seemed like an obvious decision, then, to complete any medical examinations required for graduate school here in Taiwan. Before my Fulbright grant, I had already received a fairly thorough checkup to make sure that I was fit for travel. The only thing missing was a TB skin test to confirm that I had not contracted tuberculosis while living abroad. I asked Kelly if she knew of a clinic that could perform this test, and she wrote down the address, saying that previous ETAs had received a TB test from the same location in years past. I planned to visit the hospital on my day off, and then ride my bike through a nearby park with the time left over.
It should be stated here that I was not new to TB tests. For the teaching profession, we must provide proof of a negative TB test before we can step foot in any classroom. This meant that I was tested for tuberculosis every year in college for observation hours and then student teaching. And other than the sight of the needle and the slight pinch in my arm, the whole process was fairly painless.
But for this particular tuberculosis-related incident, “painless” wouldn’t necessarily be the descriptor that I would choose. “Tearful frustration” seems more applicable, and I wish I could say that in a strictly figurative sense. I must admit, however, that the ordeal left me crying in a hospital waiting room on not one, but two separate occasions. And, I promise, it is not because I have TB.
The saga begins on a pleasant Monday morning, waking up to sunshine after sleeping in on my off day. I pack myself lunch of leftover pasta and take the train to Luodong, picking up my bike and leisurely pedaling to the nearby hospital. I approach the information desk and have a conversation in Chinese about needing a TB skin test for my university when I return to the United States. The helpful attendant looked up a few things on her computer, and then told me to come back after their lunch break was over, and I would be the second person in line. I strolled confidently out of the waiting area, ate my pasta on a park bench, and read until my appointment time came. I waited only a few minutes in the actual building before I was seen by an English-speaking doctor. A doctor who informed me that this particular hospital no longer performed TB skin tests, and that I would have to try a clinic in Yilan another day, seeing as it was already two o’clock in the afternoon.
Peeved at this sudden bump in the road, I asked that the doctor call and confirm that I could, indeed, receive a skin test at the Yilan clinic before I stopped by. The call was placed and a cheery voice on the other end of the line verified the doctor’s recommendation.
This time, I lacked the confident swagger I had upon exiting the hospital. I called my coordinator, the only thing I can think to do in times of distress, and she offered to meet me at the clinic to smooth over any translation issues that might arise. I welcomed the assistance.
I met Kelly at the Teacher’s Center and together we drove to the clinic. Having an adult with me provided a sense of security, a calm assurance of conflict resolution that effectively popped when the clinic worker shook her head as soon as we came through the door. It turns out that there is no place, hospital, clinic, or otherwise, in the entirety of Yilan County that performs TB skin tests because so few people needed them. This meant that I would have to travel to Taipei for this simple medical procedure.
I contained my disappointment, acknowledging that nothing further could be done. I was told to visit NTU hospital, a place that I knew of after having lived in Taipei previously. And after venting to my roommate, I felt like this was a challenge I could handle. I was capable of making it to Taipei on my own, ordering a TB test in Chinese, and then not crying as the needle went in my skin. I decided to use the afternoon that very next day to put all of this behind me.
Tuesday afternoon came. I got off the bus, trekked through various hospital buildings, got lost in the pediatric ward, and was led to three separate registration counters before I was told that I was ten minutes late for making an appointment and that I would have to come back tomorrow. After wandering around sterilized corridors for two and a half hours and asking for directions in Chinese a few dozen times, this was not what I needed to hear.
Frustration expresses itself in many forms, but it seems the only recognizable mode my body has for reacting to anger, sadness, frustration, and even extreme joy is Seas of Tears. If you are interested in my tendency to cry in most, if not every situation, I direct you to a previous blog entitled “The Good Cry.” My tears did win me the sympathies of every female worker behind Medical Counter Number Five, but it did nothing to relieve me of my present situation, and I was upset with myself for my lack of self-restraint.
There was one option, an assistant explained. I could leave this building at that exact moment, take a taxi to a different hospital that has slightly extended hours, and hope that they accept my watery pleas. And that was how I found myself alone, in the back of a taxi in Taipei, feeling bougie in the saddest way possible.
After finding the correct wing and waiting for 57 minutes, I was seen by a doctor at the second hospital I had visited in one day. In impeccable English, the doctor informed me that she was more than capable of administering the examination, but TB tests were only performed on Mondays and Fridays at this hospital. A thin, shrill cackle ripped itself out of my pursed lips as a fresh set of tears trickled down my cheeks. I remember thinking, what a blog post this is going to be. I thanked the doctor, who promptly informed me which counter I would need to visit to pay for the services rendered. These were the clearest set of instructions I had received throughout the entire ordeal.
I found my way to the bus station and rushed back to Yilan for Chinese class. My roommate, a saint if I have ever known one, brought me take out to eat during class and patted my hand as I recounted the day’s events when we returned home. I would return to Taipei that Friday after English Village for the administration of the TB test, and then again the following Monday to have it read. Including bus fare for three trips to and from Taipei, it would have been cheaper, and probably much, much easier, to have taken the TB test when I returned to the United States. But now, I can officially saw, without a doubt, that I do not have TB. In case you were worried.
Reason #3: I Got My Hair Cut and Permed Because Change is Good, But I Did Not Realize That Perming Your Hair Takes Seven Hours.
My hair was washed a total of four times, I was tested in my ability to sit still, and I left the salon with springy curls. Verdict: I am a poodle.
Reason #4: I Have Less Than Forty Days in Taiwan and I am Trying to Make the Most of This Experience Before My Life Changes Again.
I’m not crying, I’m not crying, I’m not crying…
Reason #5: Sleep Is Good.
For all of these reasons, and a few hundred more, I’ve been a little slow on writing back. But you can trust me when I say, it is not because I have been lacking material.
Thanks, Taiwan, for always keeping life interesting. And thank you, treasured reader, for putting up with all of it. Here’s to hoping for many, many more “I should blog about that” moments, and the self-discipline to actually do it.