Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Thursday, June 26, 2003

Needless to say, the one week of home quarantine that my family and I voluntarily submitted to in mid-May was a blessing in disguise (see June 16 entry for more details). It forced me into some deep reflection and self-evaluation. And I thought that I was already a pretty self-aware and emotionally self-aware person who actively works on self-evaluation and self-reflection.

Faced with the prospect of a homebound week of relaxation- no schedules, appointments deadlines, assignments to grade- I wondered what kinds of productive things I could do in addition to reading. It was then I decided to revisit this book that a friend had given me called “The Artist’s Way”. It was a book, which contained guidelines or activities for a course that would supposedly help people unblock their creativity. In the past I had read “How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci”, a book also written in this style. The author discusses Leonardo Da Vinci’s life accomplishments interspersed with mention of humankind’s historical developments and inventions. These are the inspiration for exercises to stimulate the reader’s curiosity and tap into their own hidden genius. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to awaken the “curious child” within or to find inspiration and appreciation for the wonders of this world.

But I was a little more skeptical about “The Artist’s Way” and its claims to unblock creativity. There is certainly no magic pill for any of our problems in the world and I have most certainly read my share of self-help and psychology related books. Each person is different with respect to what approach is best for them tackle their obstacles.

For me, reading and working on the exercises of “The Artist’s Way” was the beginning of an incredible journey. The weekly assignments, readings and activities engaged me and brought me many unexpected gifts- beyond just dealing with my writing and creative block. I began to discover how I had been “blocked” in my life and in so many other ways. I experienced a range of emotional states: confusion, frustration, anger, loss, curiosity, clarity, disorganization, optimism, an overwhelming sense of anxiety and urgency, impatience, selfishness, humility, embarassment, the joy and hope of new possibility and abandonment. The discoveries that I made throughout this process, I credit equally to myself (my patience and self understanding, staying committed to the daily and weekly activities, beyond the initial week in which I started) and to the book, which served as a valuable tool and guide on this journey.

Without getting into too much more detail, I came to a point in which I questioned what it is I really need to be happy or to have a balanced life (i.e. psychological health, physical health, spiritual health, social networks, professional fulfillment, personal goals). And I had to question what place (Taiwan or Canada/U.S.) would be best for me to satisfy the majority of these needs.

Monday, June 23, 2003

It's the end of the semester and I'm frantically trying to keep up with all I have to do with preparing and grading finals, planning a trip to Southeast Asia in July, starting SCUBA diving classes, among other things...

Priorities, priorities....

I really wish I had more time to consistently blog. I was planning to stay on hiatus until the end of the week. But I just had to post this bit of ego stroking news!

I recently wrote yet another letter to the editor at the Taipei Times expressing my humble opinion in response to an article written about how the Taiwanese should adopt Japan's love of cleanliness . And to my great surprise it got published !

It's the second time I've gotten a letter published and it really gives me a great sense of satisfaction and accomplishment- which is so encouraging especially to an amateur, aspiring and recovering writer like me.

Monday, June 16, 2003

Home Quarantine

Here in Taiwan I don’t have a personal vehicle, so I usually take the bus or call a taxi. My parents don’t drive so they have found a few “regular” taxi drivers to take them on their daily errands to and from work. I sometimes use their “regular” taxi driver, who I will call Mr. Z, if I’m in a pinch or the bus is too inconvenient. Back in mid-May, when SARS was at its height, public buildings and schools began taking people’s temperatures before admitting anyone onto or into their premises. As we all well know, unless you’ve been under a rock somewhere, the first symptom of SARS is usually a fever defined as over 38 degrees Celsius. On a routine pick up from the college where both my father and I teach, our regular taxi driver’s temperature was measured at 38 degrees- the magic number that triggers fear, suspicion, despair, isolation … he was immediately advised to go to a nearby hospital for treatment and asked to report to us on his condition.

At that time most common knowledge about SARS was somewhat ambiguous and unconfirmed. We knew that SARS could survive at both high and low temperatures, but seemed to survive longer at cold temperatures. I had read that the virus could last up to 3 days in refrigeration! I had heard that SARS didn’t survive well in high temperatures, so as the summer progressed the virus would probably wane. There were theories that the virus thrived in enclosed areas, therefore enclosed public spaces were to be avoided and people were encouraged improve room air circulation by using fans and opening their windows instead of using air conditioning. People were encouraged to wear masks in enclosed public areas such as office buildings, department stores, etc. What was known was not yet conclusively proved, so it was hard to decide what was mere conjecture, prudent suggestion or theory.

Needless to say, we called another taxi to drive us home. It was the most physically and emotionally tense taxi ride I’ve ever experienced. I sat stiffly in the back seat trying not to touch anything, donning a mask, windows rolled down, wind blowing my hair all about and into my face, my mind was racing I didn’t even know to feel, I began wondering how many people had sat in this particular cab today, if any one had coughed, sneezed or left behind any other human secretions carrying the invisible enemy we could not escape by will, if fate should dictate otherwise. I wondered if I was now a carrier, what traces I might possibly leave behind for some unfortunate, unsuspecting victim. A sense of doom was looming- the sky outside even began to look overcast and gloomy, but it was probably just a sign that the sun had set. The traffic seemed thicker than usual and it was- since we left later than usual and had now hit rush hour. Glancing at the meter as it jumped gave me no comfort since it just reminded me how much longer this ride was going to take and how much more it would cost. Traffic was at a stand still.

All of us, my parents and I had ridden in Mr. Z’s taxi that day. We were stupefied, but soon moved into action. We took showers and put the clothes we had worn that day into the wash. My father called Mr. Z’s wife to advise her of the situation, and to ask if she had heard from Mr. Z since he went to the hospital. My mother began calling our family doctors for advice. A few hours later, Mr. Z called and reported that he had had a blood test at the hospital revealing that he didn’t have SARS. It was a moment of relief, but we still weren’t out of the woods, since we had heard that the incubation period for SARS was said to be 3-5 days.

So as an extra precautionary measure my parents and I decided to impose home quarantine on ourselves. During that time we would minimize our contacts with others and sad to say, in time we’d be able to see if our driver Mr. Z developed SARS- a prime indicator for us.

So for one week I faced the demons, uncertainty and fragility of life that SARS had awakened for me. It was a waiting game, but a welcome diversion in away because I had become so exhausted mentally and physically by going out into the SARS battlefield. This whole experience forced me to evaluate the downward spiral I’d been experiencing lately. How did my outlook here in Taiwan change so drastically since the beginning of the semester? When I returned in February, so many things seemed possible. I had great hope, optimism, opportunities seemed abound, I had a plan; I had goals.

I had applied for a full-time teaching position at the hospitality college where I had been teaching for nearly 2 years, begun working on writing an English textbook, toyed with enrolling in an English Literature degree program at a university in Kaohsiung (just for fun, because the requirements were so minimal for someone like me- a foreign educated, native English speaker), planned to take more Chinese language courses and was considering go to Taipei to look for other work if I wasn’t able to secure a full-time teaching position at a college. Then, like dominoes, so many of these ideas started tumbling down in April when the full-time position at the hospitality college didn’t pan out, and the English textbook project was abandoned since the textbook was specifically suited to students at the hospitality college. I began to question my purpose here and what I hoped to accomplish- enrolling in a degree here was just another reason, or well disguised “productive” excuse for prolonging my stay here. Learning for leisure is one thing, but if I go for another degree it will something that is focused necessary for a particular goal or career objective and I realized that I was reaching for reasons to stay.

Maybe it was bad timing, perhaps it wasn’t meant to be. In a way I had no specific, future direction, I wondered what my purpose had been in coming to Taiwan again, now I found myself seeking justifications for staying in Taiwan for another year. A year ago, a voice inside me had said one more year- and if you don’t get a full-time teaching job at the hospitality college, maybe it’s a sign. It’ll be a time for reevaluation.

Even before SARS hit I was beginning to wonder where I was going. Doubts and questions began surfacing and when SARS hit, it became all the more apparent, I began to feel even more isolated as I limited my social interactions and outings, avoided public spaces and mass transit. My frustrations rose when I witnessed Taiwanese people’s the lack of social responsibility and conscience- they didn’t seem able or willing to contain the spread of SARS… selfishly focusing on safeguarding themselves by ostracizing those in their community who were inflicted with SARS, breaking home quarantine rules, and record numbers of health care workers quit their jobs. There were even DOCTORS with SARS symptoms, who disregarded quarantine orders or did not voluntarily quarantine themselves, and instead they went back to work or traveling The SARS problem requires coordinated effort and forthrightness of people in society. In this right, many people in Taiwan have failed- by not taking SARS seriously, not taking proper precautions for themselves and others, not properly reporting their symptoms, not reporting their previous whereabouts, and not erring on the side of caution. It drove me crazy to think that my health was put at risk by all of this random behavior. The government hasn’t done much better. I began to realize that I was not really committed or obligated to stay here when I began to wonder why I had to put up with all of this. That I didn’t have to put up with all of this. If I were living in NY in a heightened state of terrorist alert, I don’t think I would have reacted this way. I would have found some way to manage the hardship. I would have had more faith in American society and the government. And I did feel it when I was in New York- the new feeling of togetherness among New Yorkers sharing in their vulnerability.

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

The unrelenting whistling winds at this insane hour...

The wind is churning about outside as the windows protecting us whistle; I feel as though I'm in a kettle of boiling water. Actually the weather here lately has most definitely been as fierce as water that's reached its boliing point. Last Saturday a much needed rainstorm started with force and lingered into the night and since then the weather has been extremely variable, in the last 36 hours there have been spits of rain, overcast skies, an earthquake, sunny skies, lightening, a power outage and raging winds.

Yesterday, we had quite an unsettling earthquake, or so it seemed, by my east coast city girl standards. Just before 5 pm I was leisurely grading final exams when I felt it- a shifty feeling, as if all the world's a ship at sea. I definitely did not imagine it- it lasted for 15 minutes. Once you've experienced this type of earthquake, you'll be prone to second guessing yourself . The next time you're feeling a little unstable or woosy you might wonder- is it me or are we having another earthquake? It was the strongest earthquake I've ever felt in my life, but that's not saying much because my ex-roommates in Taipei will attest that during a particular week in 2002 , several earthquakes hit Taipei and each time I had NO idea that any of the earthquakes had happened- even though I was sitting at my computer in the apartment, running in a park and sleeping during those times. LOL. What's wrong with me? So this was the _first_ earthquake that I've fully been aware of experiencing in Taiwan. Perhaps, being on the 29th floor, the effects were magnified. It was a little unnerving. Fortunately nothing broke or was in danger of breaking.

Going Against Nature

I have a sinking feeling that nature is turning on humans for our abuses and assault on our fellow living creatures... certainly we must question the way that we are breeding animals with all of the outbreaks of "chicken flu", foot and mouth disease, mad cow... SARS which has been postulated to have come from pigs or racoons and now monkey pox, which is said to have come from prairie dogs that have been adopted as domestic pets. Just what kinds of conditions are livestock animals being kept in? How can their health be safeguarded, or maybe we should be questioning how or why we even raise livestock... It's enough to make me consider becoming vegetarian.

Sunday, June 01, 2003

It's official...

I can pass for a local Taiwanese person... at least that is what I assume based on what happened to me last Wednesday, as I was waiting for the bus to take me to the college for my evening class. Usually people can tell a mile away that I'm not local- just by the way I walk, talk or dress. I can't tell you how many taxi drivers have asked me within the first five minutes of the cab ride where I'm from or whether I'm an ABC. On this particular day, I was just standing at the bus stop waiting and minding my own business and wearing a face mask no less, when a young man who looked as though he was in his 20's approached me and asked me something in Mandarin. I didn't hear what he said and didn't realize that he was speaking to me since I've rarely had strangers start random conversations with me.

Well, apparently, my lack of response and the blank expression on my face didn't seem to deter him from launching into a line of questioning: Would you like to talk? Are you waiting for the bus?

I was rather peeved by his intrusion and simply said back to him in Mandarin, "Do I know you? No I don't, so why are you asking me all these questions?"

Unfazed he continued, "How old are you? Are you waiting for the number 69 bus? Are you going to Shiao Gang?"

Indeed I was.

Well this guy was just pushing all of the hot buttons- what kind of person asks a complete stranger how old they are and how the hell did he guess that I was waiting for the number 69 bus to Shiao Gang? That just gave me the creeps.

Finally I took the direct approach by simply saying, "I don't want to talk you you." Too bad I don't know any flaming insults in Chinese. Oh well, I suppose even if I were speaking in English, I would have been polite. I'm just not prone to telling people off unless I really feel threatened or endangered.

Thankfully he skedaddled after that and soon after the number 69 bus came.

Even after the exchange I was confused- what was _that_ about?!

And then I realized that he was trying to pick me up! Duh... and I thought I'd heard some pretty lame pick up lines in my day... and I was wearing a face mask- he couldn't even see half of my face. This guy didn't even make an attempt at some witty, lame pretense of interest. I just didn't get it. I just have to assume that this is how locals court. Later that night I spoke to one of my Taiwanese girlfriends and she confirmed it- it was definitely a pick up.

Come to think of it, at all of the other more "usual" places (bar, dance club, social gathering) that I've been picked up in, in Taiwan, I've noticed that without failure, the all-important-question always surfaces within the first 10 minutes of conversation: How old are you? I guess that's the not so subtle Taiwanese code for "I'm interested." No time for beating around the bush or negotiations... next...

Noise pollution

The second largest city in Taiwan, Kaohsiung is a remarkably quiet city compared to Taipei. It's not uncommon to be able clearly hear the sounds of children at play during recess at a school miles away and across the river, or the one "parade" in town, which is more aptly described as a funeral procession. Amazingly, many funeral processions sound extremely joyous and had I not been told otherwise, I wouldn't have known that all of the music noise and fanfare was for a funeral. Apparently, the flavor of the funeral procession is an indicator of the deceased's age and quality of life. Vibrant funeral processions are a sign that the deceased died at a ripe old age and had a satisfying, full life or was related to some prominent member figure with some clout in society (like a politician or gangster- as I type this I wonder why I even bothered to make the distinction...). Otherwise Kaohsiung is peppered with the sounds of the daily garbage truck tunes and local fruit and food vendors bidding people to check out their goods.

So, I'm certain that it's not my imagination- that the sounds of ambulance sirens have become a conspicously frequent occurrence. I now hear them on a daily basis- during the day and especially at night. With SARS showing little signs of abating, I can't help but wonder if the frequent wailing of sirens is correlated at all to SARS.