Whirl. Wind.

Kaohsiung, Taiwan

Kaohsiung, Taiwan

I traveled the length of my birth country today rather by accident. I started on the southern tip of Taiwan in Kaohsiung – saying goodbye to my father and stepmother at the High Speed Rail Station. We had a mini-huddle there at the top of escalator platform; with my arms stretched around both of their shoulders and our heads all leaned in, I said to them in Mandarin “Be good to each other, take care of each other, be mutually optimistic.” Then, some kisses, a squeeze, and I was off.

Unfortunately (or however you want to look at it) I was using the train’s restroom when the announcement for my stop was broadcast. My destination was Taichung, the largest city on the island located in its center. A trip that takes a mere 45 minutes. But being unfamiliar with Taiwan’s geography, I came out of the bathroom during the stop in Taichung, plopped back down and proceeded to admire the brand new Samsung digital camera the new passenger next to me was busy freeing from its packaging.

“Does that connect to the internet?” I asked, as he busily used the touchpad to set his options.

“Yes,” he affirmed, very proud of his purchase. “It just came out today. I had to pre-order it.”

And that’s how it came to be that a full hour, then hour-fifteen passed, and I wondered why we hadn’t yet hit Taichung. I turned to the young man with thick black rimmed glasses and said, “Forgive me, this is going to be a stupid question, but this train does actually stop in Taichung before it hits the northern most tip of the island, Taipei?”

For reasons I’ll never understand, he merely answered, “Yes, this train stops in Taichung before it hits Taipei.”

So I rode that bullet train all the way north, past the skyscrapers of Taichung, thinking (incorrectly) as we sped by the sprawling high-rises how much Taiwan had grown in the 16 years since I’d last been here – to have a city so large it looked like Taichung but not actually be Taichung which actually it was. Passages from Tom Freidman’s The World Is Flat were in my head as I admired the sprawling metropolis featuring all kinds of companies with TEK as the suffix. I gawked at the apartment buildings that would make Howard Roark from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead shudder: modern vertical expanses topped with architectural features stolen from an ancient time, spotlighted Corinthian columns framing the penthouse floors.

It wasn’t until the urban scenery stretched into mile after mile – more appropriately kilometer after kilometer – of countryside that I started to worry. I checked my notebook in which I’d written my estimated arrival time, looked at the clock and figured I’d simply jotted it down wrong. I’m not great with numbers and I’m especially not great converting 2:14pm to 14:12pm. Yeah, I know. Not rocket science. Shut up.

By the time we hit BanChiou, I started to get the sense something was really wrong. Things were looking really remote outside. The weather completely changed to overcast and chilly-looking. So you can imagine my panicked horror and confusion when the announcement came that Taipei, the end of the line, was the next stop. I turned to Mr. Samsung and blurted “What happened to the Taichung stop?”

It was only then he decided to disclose the information that would have been quite valuable to me an hour and a half earlier.

“That’s the stop where I got on!” he said, matter-of-factly with the look in his eye that declared how stupid he found me to be.

Sigh. I pressed my fingertips into my forehead, distraught.

I had a very limited window to spend time with my relatives in Taichung before my plane left to the United States, and this mistake would wind up costing me two and half hours. Additionally, my cousin had been waiting for me at the train station in Taichung that whole time. I was out of minutes on my international calling plan that I’d arranged with my cell phone company before leaving the States, so my best option was to Skype-call him and explain my predicament. Waves of guilt flooded my heart since I knew he’d taken the afternoon off work to make time for me. I spent the ride back south to Taichung mentally berating myself for being so dumb.

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Crying baby alert. There is currently one very unhappy infant two rows back to the left. I’m writing during my flight from Taiwan back to Portland. I can think of only a few sounds more irritating to the ear. A garbage truck in reverse. A car crash. A car alarm. But most of those happen in the open air. This sound is particularly grating in such a confined space. Can’t write. Till. It. Stops.

************

Okay, I’m back.

Upon arrival in Taichung, I find my cousin pleasant as ever, wearing shiny blue tennis shoes and a thick red, white and blue winter coat decorated with the words World of Sports. (Asians are fond of clothing that bear words in English in the same way Americans are fond of items bearing Italian or French. But in both cases I’m sure there is often a nuance lost in translation. It’s not uncommon to see kids in Taiwan wearing jeans that says “Action thriller POP!”) At the airport in Taichung a giant Christmas tree features a lit sign with the words “Departures for Love, Merry Christmas.” Awkward phrases like this make me chuckle.

Note the message on the Christmas Tree

Note the message on the Christmas Tree

I greet my cousin with my head down, apologizing profusely for his wasted afternoon. He brushes it off, mostly, telling me he assumed I’d fallen asleep. My explanation comes out as a rambling mess. Then he’s on the phone with his mom, my aunt, explaining my error. Within minutes my dad’s on the phone too, calling from Kaohsiung, purely to laugh and question how I’d managed to miss Taichung. Later, my other aunt would call just to add to my humiliation, saying “So you went to Taipei?” I asked her how she found out so quickly?! She quipped, “They broadcast it on the Taiwanese news.”

Walking out of the train station, my cousin walks briskly toward a blue Mazda he’s double-parked at the corner. He tells me to wait under an overhang to keep from getting wet; it’s raining. As I get in, I’m immediately distracted by what I think is the largest GPS device I’ve ever seen. He has a mini-tablet propped up on his dash. To my amusement, he turns it on and shows me it’s a TELEVISION. Which operates WITH A REMOTE. As we pull away from the train station, he demonstrates how on his way to work he talks on the phone, shaves, eats breakfast and watches the news. A truly mobile living space.

I scold him.

Then, quickly shoot a video to document his unsafe driving habits. Because I don’t think anyone will believe me back home when I describe this set up to them.

When we get to the house he shares with my aunt and uncle, there is the obligatory removal of shoes and switch to house slippers and tour. For some reason, these two acts are also very characteristically Chinese. He shows me his parents’ two Maltese (Malteses?) who don’t stop yapping till we let them roam free. We wind up to the third floor where his bedroom features a CD rack he’s proudly converted into a wall-mount for his broken badminton rackets. Fourth floor is his brother’s former bedroom. And an empty room with lacquered wooden floors for entertaining. Then it’s up to the top floor terrace garden my uncle maintains. With no lift, I observe that my uncle has to carry bags of soil and fertilizer up five flights of steps. My cousin mutters about the garden in disgust since he winds up having to water his father’s plants when my aunt and uncle are away. He gestures dramatically about the mosquitos that bite him as he tends to the task he hates.

My cousin goes by the English name “Salt.” It’s printed on the English side of his business card.

Naturally, I have to know how that happened. “Why Salt?” I ask. “Why not…Pepper?”

He explains how when he was starting his career everyone else he knew was taking more traditional English names like Sam or Justin. “Or Johnny. Everyone’s named Johnny. Do you know how much Johnnies there are in Taiwan?” he says.

He reminds me how when he was little, his nickname included the Chinese word for Salt so when it came time to choose an English name, he figured he’d just convert that. Easy to remember. Unique. He laughs and tells me how my mom had advised him Salt was weird, not a good name. I tell him I like it. That it’s cool. He seems pleased.

Salt and I are just coming back downstairs when my aunt, uncle and other cousin come home. There are hugs and compliments about figures and faces (aunt to me: “You’re skinnier than you look in your pictures!”) (me to aunt and uncle: “You guys haven’t aged a bit. I think you look even younger!”) and then the mini-tornado that is my aunt goes about her thing.

And by her thing I mean she moves about so quickly it’s hard to keep up. I follow her into the kitchen where she frantically searches the refrigerator for fruit to serve me. Producing two apples and a guava, she washes all three in the sink, grabs a giant kitchen knife and with her right hand deftly slices the fruit she’s holding in her left. I’m cringing the whole time; she’s talking the whole time. There is a curious urgency with which she speaks that simultaneously stresses me out and amuses me.

My aunt Xiao-Bin with her two babies

My aunt Xiao-Bin with her two babies

The previous night, my dad and I had traveled to Bei Gang to visit my mom’s other younger sister. She has this giant house in the country, in a town where my grandfather was principal of an elementary school and where my mom and her family had once lived. She too has movements that are quicker than you’d ever expect for someone who is in bad health. She’s got weak lungs, and coughs intermittently as she speaks. But there she is in her kitchen, squeezing fresh orange juice which she proudly serves at dinner.

I take lots of pictures and video here too, since I want to take them back to show my mom. This aunt managed finances for a university in Taiwan until two months ago when she quit to recuperate. Her career success has come at a cost; she tells me how she regrets neglecting exercise in all those years of striving for professional advancement. She admonishes me about the importance of family, how there is nothing more important. This aunt speaks with a self-assuredness and wisdom derived from someone who’s been there and wants me to avoid the mistakes she believes she’s made.

My aunt Dao-Liou proudly squeezing orange juice in her kitchen

My aunt Dao-Liou proudly squeezing orange juice in her kitchen

Both aunts have this way of giving me an approving look that absolutely fills me up. It’s a look that says, yeah, you’re all right. You’re one of us. We’re proud to call you niece.

And maybe you have the same experience, seeing slightly altered versions of your own parent in their siblings. They look just enough like my mom to reveal they’re related and there are similarities in their mannerisms, but the nuanced differences in how they see the world reveal the variation in experiences that shaped their lives.

As for my dad, well, it says a lot about him that he’d want to go see his ex-wife’s younger sister and takes the time and energy to do so while I’m in Taiwan. Our arrival in Kaohsiung a week ago was followed by a lot of indulging in the fresh seafood the city is known for. The kind of restaurants where fish tanks and plastic bins hold the still-living shrimp, carp, and scallops you pick out, and are cooked to order within minutes.

My father, as aforementioned in a previous post, holds food as a high priority. So the meals we gorge on these first few days back in Taiwan at very little cost are a delight to him. We know he’s about to begin chemotherapy, so this display of gluttony is written off as preparation for the weight he’ll soon lose with the poison injected into his body.

At one of Taiwan's famous night markets

At one of Taiwan’s famous night markets

On Tuesday, we make the long anticipated visit to the hospital in Kaohsiung where he’ll be treated. The morning begins with no less than four relatives calling the hospital on different phone lines to try and get an appointment for him with the deputy director of the cancer center. Taiwan has a nationalized health care system. My dad, having dual citizenship, is entitled to benefit from it. Navigating the system is a major learning process for me. While we were still in Hawaii, I’d been able to identify and correspond via email with one of the leading colon cancer specialists in Kaohsiung. My stepmother’s younger brother had helped my father land an appointment with that specialist, a surgeon. I’d additionally found the deputy director who was an actual oncologist, but getting face-time with him would prove more difficult. You have to book appointments with him like you’re snagging tickets to a Justin Bieber concert, hoping and praying your call is the one that makes it through. Waiting rooms are jammed with people, many wearing masks to avoid picking up airborne germs. This is a post-SARS Asian culture and at my insistence, my dad joins the club.

Waiting to see the deputy director of the Cancer Center

Waiting to see the deputy director of the Cancer Center

Deputy Director Chen sits us down and begins pouring over the 200 pages of medical records I’ve copied, tabbed, and brought over from Hawaii. He’s taking notes and for several minutes we’re just sitting there in silence, nervously awaiting his assessment. As a courtesy to me, because he figures I’ll find Taiwanese more difficult to understand (he’s right) he tells us in Mandarin my dad should get chemotherapy starting next week. That he should first get a port put in. That surgery isn’t the right step. That the mass remaining near my dad’s spine, sitting next to a main blood vessel, the one deemed inoperable by American doctors, will actually serve as a good “index” for whether the chemo is working. If it shrinks and/or goes away, good news. If it doesn’t, we need to discuss other options.

I have my notepad out and I’m taking notes. I ask as many questions as I can and fill Dr. Chen in on my dad’s situation, how he just uprooted from Hawaii last week and shifted his life to Taiwan. How I went to Hawaii not expecting a transpacific trip to Taiwan to accompany him. How I’m here to make sure he gets the best care available. And could I please keep in touch with Dr. Chen for updates about my dad’s treatment?

Later that night, I’m reviewing in my head the things the doctor said. And I realize he mentioned as a subtext that the treatment option he was selecting for my father, Avastin, was covered by the Taiwanese National health insurance. I wondered if that was a basis for his decision. So I emailed him, and tried without being too pushy to emphasize that I didn’t want my dad’s cancer protocol determined in any way by its cost. If there is better medicine that isn’t covered by the public health program, I wanted Dr. Chen to know I’d find the funds to pay for it.

To my surprise, he wrote back at 11:30 at night, assuring me what he’s recommending is simply the best treatment he thinks my dad should get. In a system set-up to deal with masses, with patients who are given numbers like they’re in line at the DMV, having the deputy director of the cancer center respond so promptly was the kind of reassurance I sought in making this trip to Taiwan. Laying eyes on the facility and the people I hope will save or extend my father’s life was vitally important to me.

Deputy Director of the Cancer Center, Dr. Leo Chen

Deputy Director of the Cancer Center, Dr. Leo Chen

Before I left Kaohsiung, I went for a run at a nearby high school. It was 9 o’clock at night, and the place was packed. Teems of teenage boys scurried around on the outdoor basketball courts, no doubt dreaming of becoming the next Jeremy Lin. Sessions of tai chi were underway as was to my delight, a cha-cha class of roughly 30 women. As I circled the track, I watched the cha-cha-ers tearing it up to tunes like “I’m Your Sexy Pot” – which I found deliriously funny. I kept my eye on the group and when it took a break, I made my way over to ask about their get-togethers. Explaining a bit about my dad’s situation, I wondered if they’d be open to adding a 66-year old man. They responded warmly, saying they needed a little male energy among them!

I ran back to the uncle’s house where we were staying and breathlessly burst in to give my dad the good news. I found a dance class for you! It’s free! It’s every night Monday through Friday from 8 to 9:30pm! It was as important a discovery to me as identifying my dad’s new hospital and new doctors. The chemo may kill the cancer. The dancing and ping-pong will keep him alive.

He smiled as I excitedly told him about the class, how they would be happy to have him, and he said, “Thank you Anna.” I’ll carry that smile with me all the way back to Portland.

I’m back home now. And here’s the message I woke up and read from my dad this morning:

Yesterday, I tried to go to the school but it rained dog and cat. So I have to wait until Monday.

Get busy living right? Once it stops raining dog and cat, anyway.

Dad and Hope

Dad and Hope