The Unwitting Fortune Tellers
Toward the end of my stay in Taiwan, I wanted to go out the front door of Tung-Hong with my camera, just to take pictures to record what it is like there. My wife said that might make the place too identifiable, although it looked about like most other places in Kaohsiung, so I did not. I realized at that point that perhaps it would be better for me to record mental pictures of Taiwan, although it's really hard to summarize. I could imagine going out the door and walking a short distance to the convenience store nearby, or the restaurant, or the fish market. Of course, the recycling center and the old folks' home are also on the grounds owned by Eunice's family, and Duo-Duo runs his computer repair and upgrading business out of Tung-Hong where he lives. (Ironically, his computer broke down the day I left, but fortunately, he is well equipped to fix it.) Meanwhile, I could visit with the neighbors and watch over the kids. I would need to be careful not to wander into the barber shop a couple of blocks down the street, though, lest I be asked whether I want a striptease show or a massage with my haircut. It's a good thing Eunice has a beautician's license, so there is no need to go to a barber shop for a haircut in Taiwan, if you know what I mean. Perhaps I could make my way to the Chinese fried chicken place which proudly displayed a sign of a presumably American cowboy riding on his horse, herding those thousands of chickens on the range, I guess.
The most persistent image in my mind from Taiwan, is that of the scooters -- the hordes of scooters seemingly driving every which way, some with as many as 3 or 4 people on them. Mind you, these are not large motorcycles such as the Harleys we are used to seeing in the United States. These are rather small scooters, about equally likely to be driven by a woman as a man. In fact, along with the image of entire families riding on one little scooter, my fondest image is of the plentitude of pretty young women on their scooters, something we never see here in the U.S. Actually, by law motorcycle riders have to wear helmets in Taiwan, so most of the scooter riders do wear them, though not all. Nonetheless, it is easy to see that many of the drivers are cute looking young ladies. There is just something that would be so incongruous about the site if it were not in Asia -- the indelible image of the macho motorcycle rider being irreparably shredded to pieces by the yellow hordes of Chinese feminine pulchritude, like a scene out of some futuristic nightmare of an American xenophobe. In contrast, I, rather than fearing the "yellow hordes," have come to join them and love them, although riding around Kaohsiung on a little scooter may be a step too far for me. By the way, I have come to realize that another reason so many scooter riders wear masks in Taiwan, is probably to hide the looks of terror on their faces as they negotiate the horrid traffic there. Despite that, I did not come upon a single accident while there, a driving success rate which surpasses by far that which I have observed in the U.S. Even on the way to the airport here in California, we passed a bad accident in which a motorcyclist was struck by a big rig and was laying on the ground clutching his back while his motorcycle was on fire. In Taiwan, motorcyclists (that is, scooterists) have to drive on the right side of the road, in all cases. On the larger roads, there are entire motorcycle lanes in which they must drive, although cars are allowed to go in them too. Many of the drivers tend to drive slowly in Taiwan, either in cars or on scooters, since they frequently have to stop for other drivers. I think it is this courtesy which makes accidents relatively uncommon there, although perhaps I have just been lucky in not witnessing any accidents there.
Eventually, it occurred to me that Taiwan may be an unwitting fortune teller, a harbinger of what the future has in store for humanity, in a surprising number of ways. Certainly, the congestion of a rather crowded island is consistent with humanity's still-expanding population, but it is more than that. Thom Hartmann, on his show today, aptly desribed libertarians as people who had never heard of "the commons" -- the things upon which we all depend and therefore, which we must share, with the help of government. I would be surprised if one would ever find a libertarian in Taiwan, unless it was some sort of transplanted, misguided American. The Taiwanese get the concept of "the commons," as I am sure the people of most other nations aside from the United States inevitably do as well. The Chinese are also famously good at making the maximum use out of small spaces such as small farming areas even where farming would not appear feasible, or by building small, productive fish farms, of which I saw many in Taiwan. Taiwan has lots of mountains along its eastern side, and they are no slouches, reaching up to 13,000 feet above sea level (or maybe about 12,800 a few centuries from now with sea level rise), and these mountains are rugged and wild, basically tropical and temperate rainforests, but cold enough to get lots of snow in the higher elevations in the winter. However, the western side of the island, gradually slopes toward the ocean, and aside from the flood plains, human beings have made use of almost all of it. In fact, there are several native tribes in Taiwan, and they still constitute several percent of the population. However, rather than being conquered by the Chinese, they were simply outworked, outresourced, and outsmarted by the Chinese, who used their ingenuity to make use of places which the native tribes did not know how to use. The natives, who are rather like polynesians such as Tahitians or Samoans, often with wavy hair and rather dark complexions, were relegated to their homelands in the mountains or along certain coastlines. Eunice says the Dao-Ren (Chinese people whose ancestors came to Taiwan hundreds of years ago) call them "mountain people." Eunice herself is a Dao-Ren, who represent the majority of Taiwanese, and who came from the part of China closest to Taiwan. There are two other groups of Chinese in Taiwan, the Hakka, who are Cantonese, and the Kuomintang or Mandarins, who fled mainland China as the communists took over. There are also quite a few immigrants from southeast Asia, including Thailand, Vietnam, and the Phillipines. Finally, there are non-Asian immigrants from all over the world in Taiwan -- Taiwanese converts, if you will, or in many cases, people who happen to have fallen in love with and married a citizen of Taiwan. Thus, Taiwan is a melting pot of peoples and cultures. It might not be melting quite as fast as the United States, but it is a melting pot indeed.
Speaking of melting, the people of Taiwan will need to use their ingenuity as global warming melts the world's icecaps. Although about half of the island is mountainous, the large majority of the people live relatively close to sea level. This is certainly the case in Kaohsiung, which has some high hills, but these are forested and relatively unpopulated. The people live on a plane near sea level, conveniently located -- for now -- near the port but not in it. When one of Eunice's friends, Sherry -- actually sort of a godchild of Eunice -- drove us to the port the day before I left, I was struck by the fact that it involved no downhill driving. I must conclude that Kaohsiung, and many cities like it, will be in great peril as sea levels inevitably rise. In fact, it is a virtual certainty that all I saw there will be under sea water within a few centuries unless the effects of global warming can somehow be reversed. As with most of humanity, the people I met in Taiwan seem oblivious to this "inconvenient truth," as Al Gore famously called global warming. However, being the future oriented people that the Chinese are, and having the sort of intelligent planners which the Chinese are known for, they will find ways to cope with the rising seas -- moving to higher ground, building higher ground, becoming "boat people" -- whatever it takes. I would expect Taiwan to be one of the places taking the lead in dealing with climate change. Interestingly, Taiwan is still rising out of the sea, but not as fast as sea levels are likely to rise.
It is the sort of resourceful ingenuity that the people of Taiwan exhibit, which I expect will come to represent the future of humanity, as we are forced to cope with the changes and challenges of expanding populations, shrinking land bases, dislocation, and political challenges as well. The future may not look all rosy, but it doesn't look all that bad either. In fact, that futuristic young lady I can imagine riding her solar powered scooter around town, looks pretty cute. And you thought I was going to write about fortune cookies. They don't have those in Taiwan, only in America.
However, there is one more very salient side of Taiwan which I haven't touched upon -- the spiritual side. Seemingly everywhere I went, I saw signs of spiritual belief and practice. The colorful temples of Taiwan were almost an omnipresent feature. These were of several sorts, I think -- Bhuddist, Confucian, Taoist, maybe even Animist. The Bhuddist ones tended to have large statues of people such as Bhudda or other Enlightened Ones. My favorite one, though, was a temple dedicated to the Chinese Goddess of Mercy (clearly an Enlightened One, plus a raving beauty), or some such, next to the Lotus Pond in Kaohsiung. I love it when the feminine side is considered just as high a power as the masculine, or higher. Many of the temples had colorful, blue and red displays of mythical creatures such as Dragons. I never found out whether these were Animist temples, Daoist, or what. There are spiritual shrines in almost every house, including Tung-Hong, where people honor their departed ancestors and the cumulative wisdom they represent (cumulative wisdom such as that found in fortune cookies). I often saw barrels in front of people's houses with fires burning in them. Why would they want to start fires in that hot weather? Well, they were burning paper offerings, which were slips of paper meant to represent money. They are not real money, but people still have to buy them and pay something for them, so that selling the offering papers is a pretty large business in Taiwan. Now, if only we could get people such as the Koch brothers to burn all of their money...
An even sillier spectacle that I saw one day in Taiwan was a large fire, looking very much as though a big rig had caught on fire, next to a major street. However, I was told it was relatives of a recently departed person scaring away bad spirits so their loved one would have a heavenly transition to the afterlife, or some such thing. I think as exemplified by the Taiwanese, we will continue to see people cling to the past while constantly adapting to present circumstances and evolving into the future. Such is human nature, I suppose. However, there were also signs of newer spiritual practices and perhaps more scientifically oriented forms of philosphy and spirituality, such as the Falun Gong centers and signs I saw.
Although I occasionally saw Christian churches in Taiwan, eastern spiritual practices of various kinds continue to dominate the culture. I have noticed this trend even with my wife Eunice, who believes or is influenced by many spiritual practices of her homeland, although she is a Christian (and ironically, although I am a "westerner" I could never believe in the fantasies of Christianity, and am not that impressed overall with its moral teachings, either). The last afternoon I spent in Taiwan, not long before having to go to the airport, we met with several of Eunice's Bhuddist friends -- Yang Xiaojie (Miss Yang), a widower who kept calling me "handsome boy" and wondering where she could get a boyfriend like me, Mrs. Wong who used to be a psychiatric nurse at Tung-Hong (who still works as a psychiatric nurse in another hospital), another Mrs. Wong who used to run a sort of recreation center started by Eunice called King Arthur's Garden which only lasted a couple of years (another long, sad story out of Tung-Hong Place), and another pretty gal described as a protege of Miss Yang. We met at the coffee shop now run by Mrs. Wong of King Arthur's Garden fame, where they were making donations for a Bhuddist charity to help people in need, and where Eunice's friends referred to my darling wife as Chairwoman Chu. I offered my $300 N.T. in addition to the probably thousands of N.T. Mrs. Wong was collecting, but Eunice told me I had better keep it. Later, Eunice told me that there was a charity banquet that evening but she was missing it to be with me as I went to the airport. She said she was still a chairwoman of sorts, of the charity group. What a gal! Maybe that explains Eunice's spending about 20% of my income on charity donations.
If we are to succeed as a people, we must also blend and evolve our spiritual ideas, something that Taiwan acts as another melting pot for. Finally, we must exhibit a spirit of generosity, as the people of Taiwan do, and which I plan to be the title of my next post. The people of Taiwan may not know it, but it is my guess that they are fortune tellers of a sort.
Yesterday, my wife Eunice went to Clara's memorial. She died a week earlier, of metastatic cancer. At least Eunice got to see Clara one time before she died, the morning after we arrived here in Taiwan. The problem was, by that time, Clara was in a coma and did not recognize anyone, and I was so tired and jet-lagged that I was practically in a coma, too, so I didn't go.
Clara Liu was Eunice's best friend from Taiwan for quite a few years, so her passing is tragic and its timing is karmaic, coinciding with my first trip to Taiwan in 21 years. You probably wonder why I am writing this; after all, I didn't know Clara that well and her passing seems to have little to do with current world events. One reason I am writing this is because I like to memorialize people I know who pass from this world. The other reason has to do with Clara's personal life, and money.
Eunice encouraged Clara's relationship with Sam from the beginning. Sam was an older gentleman from Australia, a widower with one son, who happened to have made a fortune in the real estate business in Sydney. Specifically, Sam and his family own a great many apartments in the Sydney area -- called "flats" in Australia, as well as other lands. You know apartments -- those places where people who are too poor to afford a house, live. Once upon a time, so I heard from Eunice who heard from Clara, Sam had actually gone broke as a young man, and had to file for bankruptcy. One thing about bankruptcy that I have never understood, although I don't plan to go bankrupt and don't know much about it, is how people who make capitalistic gambles with their money, and lose, so easily have their debts forgiven, while those struggling to get by, working underpaid jobs, are expected to "pay their way" and "be responsible citizens" while "pulling their own weight" -- a series of phrases straight out of conservative memeville. Anyway, Sam eventually hit the big time and became very rich.
Sam and Clara stayed at our house in Moreno Valley for about a week, around 5 years ago. I liked both of them, as obviously Eunice did too. Sam was friendly, sort of a cheapskate but really nice, expressed progressive political views, and liked to fly sick people to the hospital in his own private airplane. Clara was a very sweet lady who apparently was very proficient at business -- I think both she and Sam were also selling golfing equipment, for instance -- loved God, and had been subject to some bad luck in her personal life. She had cervical cancer about 30 years ago, had a hysterectomy, and thus was left unable to bear children. Her husband divorced her but I don't know the details regarding that. Anyway, Sam was the first love in her life in many years. They made a sweet couple, and according to Clara, Sam was very affectionate. Eunice was expecting to hear wedding bells at any time. However, over time, Sam and Clara commuted back and forth from Taiwan to Australia to see each other, sometimes together, sometimes in separate countries. It was a prototypical, ultra-long-distance relationship. Marriage didn't seem to be in the offing in this case, although we were somewhat puzzled about why not. Clara kept saying that Sam was planning to marry her and live in a big house together in Sydney.
Eventually, Sam developed cancer in his back, some sort of unusual, muscle-based cancer I think. This was his second bout with cancer actually, but the treatment seemed to be working, and as far as I know, Sam is recovering at this time as the cancer is in remission. However, such was not the case for Clara. Apparently, a few cancer cells had lain dormant in Clara's body all these years, and for whatever reason -- perhaps the stress of her personal situation -- they started to grow again, only within the past year. In fact, she wasn't diagnosed with cancer until about 6 months ago, but by then, the cancer cells were multiplying rapidly and spreading to various parts of her body. Would the United State's advanced medical system have been able to save Clara? I doubt it, and in fact, Taiwan's medical system is probably every bit as advanced as that of the United States. There is not much that can be done about metastatic cancer, at least not yet. In fact, Clara did seek advanced treatments for her cancer, although they did not help. Even though Taiwan's public health care system is very inexpensive for the most part, some treatments such as Clara's can still be expensive. The combination of these treatments, with her inability to work for a living, and some unwise business decisions in recent years, put Clara deep into debt. Consequently, Clara borrowed tens of thousands of dollars before she passed, from Eunice, from a male friend named Win-Hsiong, and from several other people, it turns out, money she can never repay. Sam never gave her a penny toward easing her debt. Several months ago, at Eunice's urging, I sent an email to Sam in Australia, asking him to please help Clara financially. The result, when Eunice spoke with Clara, was something to the effect that Sam was given the impression that we were trying to extort money from him. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. We just thought, this man has reportedly holdings worth $700 million dollars, and he won't even give a measly few thousand to the woman who is supposed to be his fiance, while she borrows the money from people who don't have very much. What the hell is wrong with him? After hearing of Sam's response, I developed a hypothesis that his son filters the information that Sam hears, so that Sam's son basically protects his family's treasure trove of money. I suspect the money hoarding of Sam's son is also the reason that Sam and Clara never married. I remember Sam saying that he wasn't very good with computers, so he has "other people" handle that side of the business -- presumably Sam's son first and foremost. Another factor was Sam's apparent jeaousy of Win-Hsiong, even though he and Clara were just friends. Perhaps Sam's son had something to do with giving Sam the wrong impression about Win-Hsiong, too.
I just think this is another horrible example of how money poisons people's hearts, and how ungrateful those who inherit great wealth can sometimes be toward those people and institutions which make their wealth possible. We are going through much the same dilemma in the United States at this time, with the growing wealth disparities and growing influence of money in politics that is currently being manifested. Of course, Rupert Murdoch grew up in Australia, but has found the United States and Great Britain to be greener pastures for sowing his money seeds. Nonetheless, wherever there is financial capitalism, there are greedy people who benefit.
Apparently, Sam was even unaware of the seriousness of Clara's condition, and she was too proud to ask Sam directly for help. Sam didn't show up for Clara's funeral or memorial, and probably still doesn't know that she has died. Perhaps Sam intended to break up with Clara -- no doubt with the encouragement of his jealous son -- but at least he could have shown his respects. I feel that there is a strong parallel here, to the lack of respect the public receives from those among us who wish to create a financially based oligarchy.
And so the sun sets on another traumatic, dramatic day in Tung-Hong Place. Please stay tuned for another exciting episode.
The People of Taiwan Must Be Environmentalists
Some people I know have expressed an interest in what life in Taiwan is like. Frankly, I hardly know where to start, or how to fit in various personal issues. Thus, I decided to start with my humorous take on Taiwan Culture.
The people of Taiwan must be environmentalists, because most of them live directly above their businesses, so they don't need to use gasoline going to and from work, and when they do drive, most of them drive gas efficient, little scooters.
The people of Taiwan must further be environmentalists, because everywhere I look, there are trees sprouting from high rise buildings, not to mention naturally drying clothing hanging outside as long as one of the area's frequent, raging thunderstorms isn't happening
Taiwan must have a huge number of doctors and nurses, since I see people with surgical masks riding their scooters or walking the sidewalks, representing about 1/3 of the population.
The people of Taiwan must like heights, since most of their buidlings (at least here in Kaohsiung) are higher than the are wide.
The people of Taiwan must be into exercise, since bicycling and walking from place to place are very common forms of transportation here. (Indeed, there are not very many obese people here, but I have seen some so I think they are starting to catch up with America in weight.)
The people of Taiwan must be super nice, gracious hosts, since I keep being pampered and coddled by Eunice's family and friends, to the point of my embarrassment and their adding food to my plate when I am already full, while they insist on paying for everything. (Eunice has always been in the habit of adding more food to my plate, actually. Now I see where she got that habit.)
The people of Taiwan must be very industrious, since everywhere one goes, somebody is selling something.
That reminds me, the men of Taiwan must be inordinately fond of having haircuts. I say this because on some streets, about every second business is a barber shop (more on this later).
The people of Taiwan must be very forgetful about where they are going when they drive, since they keep making sudden left turns in front of people, making them slow down or stop, or making sudden shifts across several lanes. It almost as scary as driving in Boston, where streets have a habit of suddenly and unexpectedly merging together. Eunice says that I must have had a nightmare last night because I yelled a couple of times around 2-3 a.m. I don't remember anything about it, but slept very soundly and woke up feeling good. I told Eunice I was probably having a nightmare about the traffic in Kaohsiung, and she told me that the traffic in Taipei is even worse. I guess the dreaming got my fears out of my system. Dreams are a great thing, but that is another topic.
Finally, the people of Taiwan must be super friendly. I counted the number of people together in an elevator a few days ago, at FE21 Megastore, which came to 17. How very friendly and cozy! It gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling all over, or maybe that was the feeling of stragers' clothing brushing against mine. It is very common for strangers to sit down, at food courts, for example, and have lengthy conversations with each other, as Eunice did with a couple of young ladies a few days ago at the food court in the same store. Of course, the lack of unoccupied tables may have something to do with that, but certainly, privacy concerns in Taiwan are not what they are in the United States. In fact, I have noticed a disconcerting trend for female janitors to be working in the men's restroom when I go there, not that they are paying any attention to the men's "private parts," but it is distracting to me. I guess I will just categorize that with the nude statue here in Tung-Hong that looks suspiciously like my wife. She used to be a painter and sculptor, and so, she told me, she made a nude statue of herself. I didn't know whether to be embarrased and cover it with a towel, or just "admire it" (as my friend Ria on Facebook suggests) and have a laugh about it, but since admiration and laughter are good things, I chose to do that.
I have run out of humorous takes on life in Taiwan, although the one about being gracious hosts is totally serious. (Xiexie Nide Zhaodai.) By the way, some of Eunice's relatives are surprised by my noticeable though incremental advancement in the use of Mandarin. They knew I was a talented pronouncer, but now I know more words than they expected -- still, sadly, not nearly enough to have a normal conversation in Mandarin. I could talk about the vicisitudes of Chinese language at length, such as arriving at Tao-Yuan Airport in Taipei, and wondering why they would name an airport "disgusting airport." Eunice explained to me that the airport is pronounced TAO-yuan, meaning "peach garden," while the word for disgusting is pronounced "tao-YUAN." I guess I will just add Tao-Yuan Airport to "LAX Security" (you know, those people at Los Angeles Airport who stand around in uniforms and talk to each other, all the while being paid to stop the rare or even non-existant terrorist or smuggler) in my knowledge of airports of the world.
Now, to the serious stuff: I was execting to go to a funeral and a jail while here, but neither of those things may happen. Eunice's friend Chun-Yue ("Spring Moon") informed Eunice a couple of days ago that her best friend from before, Clara, "was already gone." She died last Saturday. At least Eunice got to see her before Clara passed, although Clara was already in a coma and didn't recognize anybody. I think I mentioned that in a previous blog post. The funeral is tomorrow, and Eunice will go, but she said there would be nothing for me to do there, since we couldn't talk, I wouldn't know anybody else there, and they would all be speaking in Mandarin, invoking my favorite Chinese phrase "Wo Ting Budong. Dui Buqi." (I don't understand. Excuse me.)
Yesterday, Eunice's niece A-Fen (pronounced Ah-Fen, which is a Taiwanese name) went to see Dr. Kuo in jail. He is Eunice's ex-husband, a handicapped, Forensic Psychiatrist who was put in jail with a 10 year sentence, for supposedly taking a bribe. The "bribe" was a relatively inexpensive gift from a patient. However, in Taiwan, as in mainland China, there are some very strict, and selectively applied, laws. Also, their criminal system has no juries; people are tried by judges only, so if the judge thinks a person is guilty, the person is "up a creek without a paddle," which is what happened to Dr. Kuo. This man used to be a hero of sorts in Taiwan, an example of a disabled person who was successful. He was stricken by polio at the age of 4, and his legs have not worked well ever since. He needs a lot of care, but is a skilled Psychiatrist who studied topics such as personality factors associated with rapists. I tried to look him up on the internet, but he apparently has been blacklisted, and nothing about him can be found. I asked Eunice why she didn't want to see him, and she said she is angry with him because he wants to marry his new, greedy girlfriend who wants to take what is left of his money away from the family. (And so the sun sets on another day in Tung-Hong Place.) Frankly, I feel he was railroaded and feel enormously sorry for him, and compelled to tell his story, although I understand how foolish his behavior has been and how he has been a burden to the family -- "The Big Troublemaker" as Eunice says. There may be more about Dr. Kuo later. About selective prosecution in Chinese culture as a way of controlling people: I think the situation is really no better in the United States, with it's overcrowded jails and the world's highest jail population, it's selective persecution of the poor and minorities, and its rigged system which lets the rich get away with "ripping off" the entire nation. In fact, the situation by this point in time, is probably much worse in the United States than here in Taiwan. However, Dr. Kuo's case remains a sad example of professional ethics regulation gone too far.
Eunice is still very much connected to the psychiatric community here in Kaohsiung. Wednesday evening, we went to dinner with two of her psychiatric nurse friends, perhaps former nurses here at Tung-Hong, but now, they are working elsewhere. Eunice had succesfully payed matchmaker by introducing one of her nurse friends to the man who is now her husband, and they now have 3 children. The oldest daughter also came along for dinner, in fact. The restaurant was a Taiwanese seafood restaurant where we sat on stools, and ate sweet and sour Yellow Croaker, sea snails and cooked seaweed, among other delicacies, while men nearby drank Taiwan Beer, sang and talked loudly and played games such as "paper, rock, scissors." It was certainly a more rowdy side of Taiwanese culture. Fewer people smoke in Taiwan now than before, thanks to a successful anti-smoking campaign. (I have to mention politics directly somewhere in here.) However, the restaurant did have one room where several people were smoking, prompting Eunice's friends to quickly retreat to the larger, more crowded, non-smoking room. Anyway, kudos to Taiwan's government and people for considerably reducing smoking rates. We also took a ride on one of Kaohsiung's public buses on Tuesday. They cost only 12 N. T. (about 40 cents) per person and can take a person all over the city. They are also well attended, so well attended, in fact, that there was standing room only at times. After Eunice had another long conversation with a fellow passenger lady who handed her a flier about some health product, our ride ended, once again, at the Dream Mall, where we had one of the best meals ever at a Japanese restaurant, in a section of the mall with about 10 Japanese restaurants together, on the seventh floor. It was all you can eat, but you had to order each item from the menu, basically like delicacies, and eat everything you ordered while in the restaurant. The menu featured sashimi, hand rolls, stuffed mushrooms, Ayu fish (a type of Whitefish similar to Cisco or Mountain Whitefish in the U.S., all members of the Salmon family), and so forth. We also were given a seafood shabu shabu, a soup which one cooks at one's own table. This cost about $37 for two people in U.S. money, and you aren't supposed to tip there. Overall, some items are cheaper in Taiwan than the U.S., and some more expensive, but the differences in price between the two nations doesn't seem very much, with Taiwan probably being a little cheaper overall. The main difference is that Taiwan has better public services such as health care and transportation. Also, although Taiwan has some large businesses operating here (such as the ever-present McDonald's and other U.S. owned eateries), the nation has mostly small, mom and pop businesses, much as I advocate in my Capital Ideas series. Eunice's home here in Kaohsiung is also her family's business place, for example. This is true for probably the majority of the population here, or at least close to half. People usually live on the second and third floors of their buildings, and have a shop or restaurant on the first floor. One of Eunice's psychiatric nurse friends had a liquor store run by other family members, on the first floor of her house, for instance. Grocery stores, restaurants, and various supplies can be found a short walk away from where one lives, in most cases. There is a convenience store and a restaurant next door to Eunice's property, for instance, among other things. These is also a night market here on Rueibei Road every wednesday and saturday evening. When we came back from the restaurant on wednesday, we had to walk through the night market. (We just wanted to go home at that point.) It was quite active, with stalls everywhere, and I am sure would have been a nice place to visit had we been in the mood. However, scooters were driving back and forth in the same street where pedestrians had to walk, which was disconcerting, to say the least.
About the barber shops, Eunice mentioned to me a long time ago, that, well, since only men go to barber shops, they have developed into a business which caters to men only. Apparently, attractive young women are recruited to work in them. I don't know exactly what they do, but it seems a lot like prostitution to me. Perhaps these barber shops developed as ways to disguise places of prostitution and other illicit activities, since one ordinarily wouldn't think of a barber shop as a "house of ill repute," at least I wouldn't. I have seen very few massage parlors, gambling houses, strip joints or other places of questionable activity here in Kaohsiung. Apparently, these activities are done in "barber shops" -- strange, and sad to know that men continue to exploit women one way or another all over the world.
When I came here, to my surprise, Eunice did not bring a shaver. She said we could borrow one. However, I like electric shavers, and there wasn't one, plus the one I have at home in Moreno Valley seems to be wearing out. (I wear out shoes and shavers like nobody else I know.) This turned out to be no problem; when we went to the Dream Mall, we just kept going up the elevator from floor to floor. Actually on one of the lower floors, the 3rd, there was a large display of products in the lobby by Phillips (an American company), and their shavers were on sale for Chinese Father's Day (Auust 8) so we bought one. They were actually selling them in a large lobby, not a store, which seemed strange, but not so much in Taiwan. The problem with the shaver occured the next morning when I tried to remove the layer of hair that had grown on my face. I tried shaving for several minutes, but I still had just as much facial hair as in the beginning. Finally, I opened up the shaver, and a spring and little plastic rotor shot out and dropped to the floor. The shaver they had sold us had already been broken before they sold it. We took it back that day, and they replaced the broken shaver with one that works, along with about 100 "Buhao Yisi"s (which means embarrassing or something like "I am sorry"). I think an American would have apologized too, no doubt, but not around 100 times, another example of Chinese culture and maintaining good relations among people.
Sorry to have gone on so long about the details of my trip here, if any apology is necessary, but I figured I should record this stuff somewhere. Anyway, I know that Eunice would like me to.
Tung-Hong Hospital Part 2
As it turns out, we are a bit lacking in transportation today, so here is my second (and perhaps final) installment on Tung-Hong Hospital.
I have done some internet searching regarding the current state of mental health care in Taiwan. As some of you probably know, but most probably do not, Taiwan's government devised its own public health care system in 1995, which was 5 years after I last was here. By that time, Tung-Hong was already winding down as a mental hospital, since Eunice was living in the U.S. most of the time and I don't think she was interested in having other people run the place while she was far away. Eunice may have even been a naturalized U.S. citizen by then. (I forget exactly when that happened.)
I wanted to see if mental health care was covered by the public system, and as I expected, it indeed is. This includes stays in mental hospitals, of course. Interestingly, I found this on a website from the U.S. which was extolling the virtues of Taiwan's health care system (as have I). Eunice told me -- and allowed me to write -- that she had a problem with patients' families not paying her, which contributed to her discontinuing Tung-Hong, but that was before the new health care system was in place. Presumably, since the government pays, that would not be a problem now. A more distressing problem was the frequent attacks by patients -- usually schizophrenics -- which she had to endure. I found a study on the internet which examined job stress among psychiatric nurses in Taiwan, and which concluded that this is a highly stressful job, as I already knew. More specifically, the article mentioned that 45% of the psychiatric nurses had been assaulted by patients within the past 6 months, consistent with what Eunice told me from her personal experiences. Of course, pretty much the same risk is present for psychiatric nurses worldwide. Both of these problems, as well as her new life in the U.S., contributed to Eunice's closing of the hospital. As far as the idea of hiring mental health professionals to run the place while she was in the U.S., let's just say that she had problems with others taking advantage of her and trying to take this place over, even when she was here at Tung-Hong, so I think that was out of the question for her. Without revealing the details, I had to comfort her many times as she cried about others taking financial or legal advantage of her. This is an example, I think, of the greedy, full-bore capitalist side of Taiwanese culture -- its biggest downside by far in my opinion.
Thus, now, Tung-Hong has become a sort of strange family home. It sits on Ruei-Bei Road here in Kaohsiung, a typical Taiwanese street -- 2 lanes, surrounded by 3 story, vertical edifaces including Tung-Hong, prominantly featuring corrugated steel and plastic on the outside, like something straight out of 1949 when the Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan. However, the buildings have more modern, nicer looking materials on the inside. Cars are often parked in the street, further adding to the place's congested feeling, but people here are friendly and usually cheerful, and it is common for me to be able to hear conversations in Taiwanese or Mandarin from where I am sitting, as well as people laughing and children playing. In fact, I can hear conversations as I type this.
Inside, the quarters are very spacious to say the least. We have a choice of about a dozen rooms here on the first floor alone (and there are 3 floors), several of them, former mental patient rooms. However, those are the smaller rooms. The bizarre thing about this place, as a home, is that it is built as a mental hospital. Accordingly, all of the light switches are outside of the rooms, the rooms can be locked from the outside, and in fact, the entire building can be locked from the outside, and the property is surrounded by fences which are 3 stories high. In other words, it is built to prevent people from escaping. I can recall Eunice various times, having crises when a patient "escaped" and had to be "caught" and returned to the mental hospital. This may seem harsh, but it is an important reality regarding mental hospitals. The alternative to confining patients in mental hospitals, for those who really need hospitalization, is sending them out in a world with which they are not equipped to cope until adequate improvement is seen, which is exactly what happened in the United States when Reagan decided it was a waste of government money to keep people in mental hospitals. As a result, homelessness and crime skyrocketed, and without care, people never recovered from their mental health problems who otherwise might have, whatever those problems may have been. The problem of schizophrenics not receiving treatment in the U.S. remains a big problem. I am reminded of the recent case (on July 5) in which a homeless young schizophrenic man, Kelly Thomas, was beaten to death by police in southern California. (In a strange karmaic coincidence, his name is very similar to that of my student who was murdered March 27 of this year, Carrie Thomas, who picture just recently was posted on a large billboard along the freeway near my house, in a search for her killer.)
Since this place is built like a prison, Eunice and I are pretty much stuck in here except when A-Fen, who has the key, opens the door for us. In fact, I have tried a couple of times to find a way to go outside, but have been unable to. I remember when I was here before, that the place had a large garden, with vegetables and a Koi pond. Sensitive plants, which are native to Taiwan, were also very abundant naturally here, and I enjoyed going out in the yard and feeding the Koi plus tickling the sensitive plants and watching their stems close. It makes me wonder if plants also have some form of sentience. I think Eunice used to open the door for me when I was here in 1990. I still would like to see what is out there, but apparently, it has mostly been taken over by two businesses, which Eunice's brother is overseeing. One, mentioned last time, is the convalescent hospital which occupies the largest building of the old mental hospital. The other business now operating here at Tung-Hong is an environmentally conscious one, but it probably has destroyed the yard, which may be the reason that Eunice no longer takes me to look around in the yard. It's a recycling and second-hand product business, so there is indeed recycling going on in Taiwan. This morning, in fact, as I was eating my breakfast of Corn Flakes at 8 a.m. Taiwan time, I heard a loud sound of machinery, looked outside, and saw a crane piling cardboard about 20 feet high in a huge stack. I think that's pretty indicative of what is going on now in the yard, so apparently I am not missing much by not being out there. There are also a bunch of birds which I can see through the corrugated plastic covering the room where I eat breakfast. I can only see their outlines, but I think they may be parrots by the imaginative sounding conversations they have to start the day. Being the silly boy that I am, I join in on these conversations using my whistling skills, the same whistling skills I use to act as pied piper of felines, including Mina and Shou-Zhou here inside the building.
From what I gather about mental hospitals these days, they are playing more of a role in substance abuse treatment than in the past, yet at the same time, they are dispensaries of psychotherapeutic drugs. I am not sure if Taiwan uses its mental hospitals these days mostly for drug treatment or not, but I know that Eunice had mostly schizophrenics here, which has been the norm in mental hospitals in the past. She also mentioned having some severely depressed people and drug addicts here, but not as many. Patients cycled through here frequently, since many got better with treatment, and that was reason for celebration. Others, often mentally retarded, would be here bascially as their permanent home, but those patients were ones with which Eunice and her staff would form the strongest bonds with. I suppose that's human nature. Eunice often laughed about the silly things they said, even years later, things such as "It's sunny today because I am drawing a sunny picture." (I don't know how they would explain one of the frequent sudden storms here.) Many of these people were a lot like silly 4 year olds and their magical thinking that Piaget described as Preoperational. Most of these people were Eunice's friends, not only patients, something sadly lacking in the sterile, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" environment we are accustomed to associating with mental hospitals. I think Eunice's total commitment, treating patients as worthy people, and her compassion made this place successful in terms of treatment, and financially, but sadly, Eunice could not avoid the pitfalls caused by greedy, deceitful people who were associated with this place in one way or another, or the stresses of the job.
I suppose this place is still inhabited by the aura of its mental hospital past, in a sense, at least for my wife, but these ghosts are ghosts of compassion, and that's a good thing. I hereby nominate Zun-Liang Chu (A.K.A. "Eunice") as a "High Hero" of Kaohsiung City.
Tung-Hong Hospital Part 1
People have often said I belong in a mental hospital. Well, here I am in Tung-Hong Hospital, "High Hero" City, Taiwan. Actually, this is Kaosiung City, which means "High Hero" in Mandarin. The original name for Kaohsiung (spelled Gao-xiong in the Pinyin Chinese of mainland China) came from the native tribe which lived in this area, which has a natural harbor. The name in their language was Takao, which meant "Kicking the Dog." During their occupation of this area -- you know, like all those military occupations the United States is engaging in -- the Japanese changed the name to "High Hero" since it was pronounced the same way as "Kicking the Dog" in the Chinese system of writing, but sounded a whole lot nicer and inspiring. If that seems confusing, don't sweat it, but in Chinese, since it lacks an alphabet, there are various characters with different meanings that have the same pronunciation, a fact which makes Chinese an especially diffficult language to learn. With about 1.5 million inhabitants, Kaohsiung is probably one of the larger and more important cities in the world that most Americans have never heard of. Most of the goods made in Taiwan for export, are shipped out of Kaohsiung Harbor.
Tung-Hong is my wife's home in Taiwan. You see, she used to run this hospital -- as its owner -- and act as a psychiatric nurse as well. This is my second time here, but the first time was 21 years ago, and much has changed since then. Actually, it is no longer a mental hospital. Now, part of the former hospital has been converted into a convalescent home which is being rented out by Eunice's brother. The other part is where Eunice's niece -- who uses her Taiwanese name A-Fen (Mei-Fen in Mandarin) -- and son "Do-Do" live, and act as parking attendants as they let people use their area for parking along the busy street. Also, Eunice, other family members and people such as myself sometimes call Tung-Hong home. When I was here before, there were many mental patients, mostly schizophrenics. As I recall, one of them literally thought he was a dog. He wasn't very talkative, but others had much interest in the Waiguoren (foreigner) who happened to be a Bairen (white person) -- not that the patients and I were able to communicate very well. However, since all residents of Taiwan take English classes in school, they were able to speak some English, and I was trying, however ineptly (good pronunciation for a foreigner, lousy memory), to learn Chinese. I remember that there was also a psychiatrist, 2 nurses aside from Eunice, and a cook employed by the hospital at that time.
Tung-Hong hospital is where the money used to buy the house in Moreno Valley CA, where we live, came from, as well as the money used to buy the land which my wife is selling to the solar company, and the source of the money in my iwfe's mutual funds. However, Tung-Hong is pretty much just a memory now, mostly bad ones for my wife I gather, and she is now a naturalized U.S. citizen with a life in the U.S. with me --most of the time, anyway. Eunice said she might sell it soon, and use the money to buy another house for her family. A-Fen wasn't here in 1990 when I was here before. She was at most, in high school, if even that old. She is yet another of the super-beautiful gals in Eunice's family, with her beautiful, relatively light honey and cream complexion, prominant high cheekbones and well-proportioned Chinese-style features. The first thing I noticed when I got here was 2 of the strangest looking cats I had ever seen. One, Mina, can barely use her hind legs, while the other "Shou Zhou" (my best guess at spelling, which I am pretty good at in Mandarin) is blind in one eye. Both of them are mask-faced Persians, which look sort of strange anyway, and for some reason, A-Fen has given them haircuts except on their heads. Shou-Zhou was in a car accident which almost killed him and left him blind in one eye. Mina had a stroke or some such 5 years ago which afflicted her hind limbs. There are also 2 large dogs in another room. I don't know what kind they are, but they look like 2 different breeds. A-Fen used to try to breed pets for sale, but gave up on that. However, she remains an animal lover and coddles them, especially Mina, whom she takes to bed with her and who is totally depndent on A-Fen. Bless A-Fen's heart! The mental hospital might be gone, but the compassion lives on.
Speaking of hospitals and compassion, Eunice and A-Fen went to see Eunice's good friend Clara in the hospital the morning after we arrived here. I was still sleeping at the time. In fact, I pretty much slept that entire day, being the sleepy head that I am in combination with major jet lag. Clara has cancer which has metasticized, and apparently is about to die. She didn't even recognize Eunice. Clara is about 60 years old, by the way. You see, our trip here wasn't just to have a fun vacation, or even to "show me off" to Eunice's friends and family. There may be a funeral to attend, a prison to visit, and immigration talks to conduct, among other things. There should be more on these events later, as another day comes to an end at Tung-Hong Place.
Again speaking of hospitals, Eunice went with me (after I finally woke up the next day) to Kaohsiung Municipal Public Hospital (or some such name) to have her vision and digestive system checked. This time, I got to see Taiwan's well-planned public health care system in action. The opthalmologist checked Eunice's visual acuity and eye pressure, while the digestive system doctor just asked Eunice some questions and asked Eunice to come back for some tests on another day. Eunice wound up taking three types of medicine home. The exams were free, and the medicines cost about $5 each. There was no wait for the opthalmologist, but there was a wait of something like 2 hours for the internal medicine specialist. I noticed many of the same people in both parts of the hospital. People move from one examination to another there, quite unlike and far better medical care-wise than anything I have seen in the United States. Oh, and there was a little boy who asked if i was a "waiguoren" while we were waiting, so I told him I was a "meiguoren" (American).
Still, the doctors of Taiwan seem unable to save Clara's life. Frankly, I don't think that American doctors could have done any better, and would have put her even further in debt than she is already. I guess comparing cultures is never easy or simple. Since I have been here, though, I have been to three new and impressive sites -- the public hospital, which is new, the "Dream Mall," a multifunction, 12 story shopping mall completely like anything I have ever heard of in the United States, plus "FE21 Megastore," the largest store I have ever seen at 17 stories high, but also seen run-down looking buildings. To tell the truth, I include Tung-Hong Hospital in the latter category, but even here, we enjoy sophisticated computers and high speed internet access which Taiwan's government has helped become universal in Taiwan. I am typing this on A-Fen's computer, which is fluent in both Chinese and English, and probably most other languages, and is the fastest, most sophisticated and convenient computer I have ever used. It is far superior to my slow-speed dial-up at home, for which I have to pay, and even better than the computers at the school where i teach. I think what we are seeing here, with the great juxtapositions of the ultramodern and the ramshackle, is the strange intermixing of public-spirited, collectivist and highly regulated Chinese culture, with relatively unregulated capitalism, although as a whole, Chinese people are better self-regulators, in my opinion, than most other peoples. I believe that both Taiwan and the United States need more of the former -- public spirited democratic action -- and less of the latter -- capitalism run amok. At least in Taiwan, they have the former. The United States seem unable to muster even that anymore, although I suspect and hope that's soon going to change.
Forgive my indulgence if necessary, in my personal events, since I did not bring my home computer with me. This is the only way I can write a blog post now, transfer to my home computer to be accomplished after my release from this mental hospital, although I feel very much at home here.