Ghosts and Angels on the Beautiful Island

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Photograph courtesy of fishtail@taipei on Flickr

When I woke up around nine that Sunday morning my cell phone showed that I had 33 missed calls.  It rang again in my hand.  It was the head teacher from the school I worked at. “We’re at the hospital.” She told me.  “Jana was hit by a bus.” On the way to the hospital I zipped and dodged through the heavy Sunday traffic on my motorcycle. The scents of sewage, fried food, and exhaust alternately wafted into my helmet. Westerners find driving in Taiwan, like in most Asian countries, to be lawless and chaotic.  Cars pull slowly out in front of you without looking.  Taxicabs whip by just inches from your shoulder.  People drive without helmets, run red lights, and do u-turns on crowded thoroughfares as a matter of course.  Driving in Taiwan, however, is not lawless; the laws are just different. There are two unspoken rules of the road: first, you’re responsible for not hitting the vehicles in front of you no matter what they do.  Second, you can drive in front of anyone as long as you can force him to stop and let you by; driving in Taiwan is basically a game of chicken. The larger your vehicle is, the greater your advantage in the game.

Had Jana, driving her scooter, played chicken with a bus?

* * *

Taiwan is a sub-tropical island that straddles the tropic of Cancer. When Spanish explorers first visited Taiwan they named it Isla Formosa, the Beautiful Island.  That doesn’t begin to describe it.  The mountains are steep and foreboding and crisscrossed with smooth narrow gorges carved out by rivers.  The mostly uninhabited East coast is a visual splendor where the mountains plunge into the Pacific Ocean, the last land until Mexico.  The beaches in the West are fine white or beige sand and often flanked by coral. Most of the country, however, is covered with dense jungle.

Western lore, from Heart of Darkness to Lost, has portrayed the jungle as a mystical force, and the cultures around them as haunted and bloodthirsty.  It’s worth noting that several Taiwanese aboriginal tribes were fearsome tattoo covered headhunters.  I’ve even heard rumors of tombs of skulls still hidden in the jungle, their location known only to a few elderly aboriginals.

Most Taiwanese people now, though, are of Chinese descent and adhere to a unique polytheistic mixture of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and local superstition. Colorful temples can be found on most city blocks and are dedicated to one of the many Confucian gods. Almost everybody in Taiwan believes in ghosts. Taiwanese people regularly burn ghost money and set out offerings marked by incense to provide for the ghosts of their dead ancestors in the afterlife.  A religious medium called Ji Tom in Chinese (or, more commonly, Tang Ki in the Taiwanese dialect) will enter a trance during a religious procession, become possessed by a god, and flagellate himself with long knives and maces until he’s dripping with blood. There are also higher-level mediums that don’t flagellate themselves. They channel gods and ghosts so that the living may speak with them.  Most of the older generation believes strongly in this system and well-known mediums are paid exorbitant sums for their services.

* * *

I’ve never been religious.  The opposite in fact; I have a degree in sociology.   One event in Taiwan, however, made me question my skepticism.  My girlfriend, Christine, had broken her toe very badly in a scooter accident.  Her foot was swollen to nearly twice its normal size.  We were walking (she on crutches) past a liquor store when the owner called us in.  He told me in Chinese that he had seen a ghost following Christine.  He wanted to help her. He didn’t want any money.  He was a traditional doctor and was concerned about the ghost.

He took us to the back of his shop.  There the walls there were lined with clear jars of dried herbs and roots.  The doctor motioned for Christine to sit down on a stool.  He waved his arms in the air making various Tai Chi-like motions for several minutes and then, suddenly, grabbed the back of Christine’s head with one hand, and pushed his other palm forcefully into her forehead letting out a sharp yell.  He repeated this action several times.

Afterwards we thanked him.  He told me that Christine needed to come back two more times before the end of ghost month (the month of the year when the fabric dividing our world and the ghosts’ is the most permeable) to complete the treatment. He also told me that the swelling in her foot would go down.  We drove home joking about the doctor’s antics.  However, within two hours Christine’s foot returned to it’s normal size.  The swelling subsided so quickly that her skin was left loose and wrinkled like an oversized sock.

* * *

Jana died.

Jana had only worked at my school for about six months, yet my employer, a Taiwanese man named Daniel, and his niece Sarah who supervised the teachers, took responsibility for her.  Daniel had Jana’s parents sign a form authorizing him to make legal decisions in Taiwan regarding the body.  He oversaw her body’s removal from the hospital and subsequent storage.  When he found out that Jana’s parents couldn’t afford to ship her body back to Eastern Canada for the funeral, rather than have it cremated, Daniel paid the very substantial cost of a refrigerated medical flight halfway around the world so that Jana’s parents could see their daughter one last time.

Taiwanese people believe very strongly in the sanctity of family.

Two weeks later Sarah confided in me. She’d been having strange dreams in which Jana had appeared. She thought that Jana’s ghost was lost in limbo, confused and unable find her way to the next world. I had known Jana much better than she.  Sarah wanted to know, did I think this was possible?

Jana was often indecisive, I told her.  Frightened and alone Jana could very possibly have gotten lost.

Sarah visited a medium.  The medium helped Sarah to speak to Jana’s ghost.  She told Jana’s ghost to follow her and vowed to visit Jana’s home in Nova Scotia to return her to her final resting place.

That was four years ago. Sarah hasn’t visited Canada yet because she hasn’t yet been able to afford the trip, but she hasn’t forgotten her promise.  Sarah is going to be married this year.  She and her husband will honeymoon in Ireland.  But before they arrive in Ireland they’re going to fly 2,500 miles out of their way so that Sarah can shepherd Jana home.

This story is not a strange one.  Every expatriate who has lived in Taiwan tells stories about the extreme kindness of the Taiwanese people.  Although the Beautiful Island may be inhabited by ghosts, I’ve never been to a country where the national character was nearer to that of an angel.

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17 thoughts on “Ghosts and Angels on the Beautiful Island”

  1. Your words touched me deeply. I was born in Taiwan and grew up in BC and Quebec. Now I’m back to Taiwan and living in Tainan, I’ve always appreciated the friendliness the Taiwanese display, even though they may make a foreigner feel distant in the very first place. Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. Well its true Every expatriate who has lived in Taiwan tells stories about the extreme kindness of the Taiwanese people.

  3. I was wondering if you happen to know the address of the liquor store this healer was in Tainan? Or the area in Tainan you were in where this man’s shop was located? I have been looking for an authentic traditional Chinese healer for some time and have been contemplating of going to Taiwan but without any solid leads have been unsure how to go about the whole thing.

  4. A very moving and a far and dear one. Hope that you stay cool in Tainan’s July weather.
    Take care and thank you for the wonderful story.


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