A few months ago, a friend of mine asked the question, “Why Taiwan?” I haven’t avoided her query per se; I have simply been missing the inspiration to tell the tale. As you will soon find out, it is not a grand story by any means. However, I still felt that it needed the proper introduction – a platform from which I could dive into my past. And then one day last week I was thinking about my tattoos. Well, one in particular.
I have four tattoos. Three of them were done with the pulsating sting of a tattooist’s needle. I have a monkey on my lower abdomen, an eye on my right shoulder and seven bats on my left shoulder. My fourth tattoo was received in the streets of Taiwan within the first month of my arrival to the country – no ink necessary. This is the tattoo that got me thinking.
They call it the Taiwan tattoo because of the amount of people on the island who share the mark. Not really a tattoo, it is more of a brand that one gets when they press their lower leg, usually their calf, onto the burning hot exhaust pipe of a motorcycle or scooter.
Limited space on the island and an almost endless number of scooters swarming the roads makes parking and even walking a somewhat dangerous endeavor. People are constantly on the go, zipping to and fro throughout the cities, stopping their scooters in front of shops, restaurants and stalls. It is therefore nearly impossible to know for certain if the bike you are walking by or parking next to has been sitting there for awhile or has just been dismounted. You must always be cautious.
Of course, if you are wearing pants, the most you have to worry about are char marks or melted fabric. (I have ruined at least one pair of slacks this way.) However, during the warmer months of the year when people walk around in shorts and skirts, there is no protection from the scorching metal except vigilance and a thin coat of leg hair. Vigilance of course keeps your skin looking fresh. Leg hair, on the other hand, simply provides a burning stench that might quicken your reaction time.
I unfortunately had only my leg hair to protect me on that warm summer’s day. And, really, it wasn’t much of a defense against the searing heat of my exhaust. I was trying to reposition my motorcycle so it would sit straight in a parking space. Without thinking, I used my leg as leverage to move it. And so, as opposed to just grazing by the metal, I actually pressed my leg into the pipe with the force one might use to iron an excessively wrinkled shirt. Shitty!
The initial twinge pain was minimal. It was more of a shock. But it didn’t take long for the sting to grow from a sharp prick to a constant and inescapable flame that seemed to burn my flesh from the inside out. I rushed to a nearby 7-11 to purchase a bag of ice. I needed to somehow ease the fiery fingers of pain that were clawing at the nerves in my leg. The small patch of skin now melted onto my exhaust pipe had left a red circle, raw and exposed. A flaming ring began to surround my wound and it continued to grow outwards.
Ice pressed against my leg, I hobbled back to my bike and rode home. For the next hour, I kept my wound chilled and did my best to divert my attention away from the biting pain. Slowly it turned into a dull, but manageable throb. I had become used to the ache.
The real torment, however, was experienced in the days to come. Every morning I would cover my wound with a small piece of cloth and go about my day. Unless I hit it, I really didn’t notice that I was injured. However, when I returned home every evening and checked on my burn, I saw that it was oozing with a thick white puss. I would then get into the shower, grind my teeth together and use a Q-tip to scrape the thick layer of infection out of the crater that I had left in my leg. This. Was. Excruciating.
Life went on this way for a couple of weeks. Each night I would scrape out the poison, and each day it would come back. With time though, the amount of puss began to lessen and the hole began to shrink. Within a couple of weeks there was nothing left to clean. My burn had healed and all that remained was a small scar on the back of my calf – a reminder to be a little more careful.
Oddly enough, it also serves as a reminder of the events that actually led me to Taiwan. Well, it’s more of an analogy, I guess. It is funny (in not such a funny way) how clearly the two ordeals mirror each other. The initial twinge of pain as I read the email from my (then) fiancée and realized that she had just broken up with me. Heading into my contracts class, almost numb. Being devoured by a searing pain that seemed to spread outwards from my heart. Thinking I was going to be sick. Rushing out of class, heading to my car and driving home to my parents; needing something or someone to comfort me from the pain. Spending the night talking and crying. Feeling the ache subside to a manageable throb. Returning to Kingston and the small apartment we shared to live with her, day after day, night after night. Leaving home every morning with a mask on my face concealing my anguish. Returning home to somehow try to fix that which was unfixable. This. Was. Excruciating.
And then one night as I sat behind the front desk of McNeill House (I worked the night shift in residences around Queen’s Campus.) consumed with heartache, anger and confusion I cracked. I just couldn’t understand how I could be so lost and alone when I seemed to have been exactly where I wanted to be a few months before. I remember wondering when and why my life had veered so far off course. And that was when I decided to run away to Taiwan. A friend who had been living there (here) for the last year and was getting ready to head back to Canada had offered to set me up with a job and a place to live. I hadn’t really given the proposition much thought until that night. But as I sat alone behind the front desk something inside me clicked. It told me to run. And I did. The next day I emailed my buddy in Taiwan and told him that I would be there at the end of May right after my law school convocation.
At the time, I thought that I was running away from everything and everyone. I felt the need to start fresh. So I did. It wasn’t until my road trip around Canada and the U.S., however, (see track 5 – St. Elmo’s Fire) that I realized I wasn’t running away from anything – I was running towards my life. And, I am happy to say that it has turned out better (and more unexpectedly) than I ever could have imagined. Could it have turned out just as well if I hadn’t moved to the other side of the globe? Quite honestly, I don’t know. Maybe. But then again, who cares? I have a loving wife, a gorgeously precocious child, amazing friends and family and a great career. I couldn’t ask for anything more. Despite the pain that got me here, everything worked out fine.
Closer to Fine, by the Indigo Girls, is a song that brings me back to first year university as well as the events that led me here to Taiwan. It was introduced to me by my university sweetheart and often sung by the woman to whom I had been engaged. I have listened to this song with friends, sung it on countless occasions, and even been serenaded to it in my parents’ bathroom. With all of these memories, good and bad, the melody and lyrics still sing out to my soul and remind me that no matter what my troubles may be, everything is going to work out as it should.
On an aside, I actually branded my wife with a Taiwan tattoo about a year before we got married. She was waiting for me on the back of my idling scooter while I went into a 7-11 to get some water. When I returned, I accidentally pulled on the throttle and sent the bike lurching forwards. Caught off guard, she fell backwards and pressed her bare leg against the exhaust. Fortunately she got over her pain and anger and forgave me. Twelve years later, everything has worked out not as we had planned but as it was meant to be. And now, neither one of us are closer to fine… we are already there.
Closer to Fine youtube link