By Serena H. Chen, MD
Disclaimer – the author is a Reproductive Endocrinologist at The Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science (IRMS), headquartered in Livingston, NJ. That’s the formal way of saying that she’s a doctor who helps to make “test tube babies” for a living. She is NOT a writer, so she cannot guarantee complete sentences or correct grammar……
Subject: Taiwan Blog one week prior 12 11 14
Hi my name is Serena Chen. I was born in New York City to Chinese parents who were born and raised in Taiwan. In a week I will be going to JFK with my two younger brothers, my sister in law, 22 year old niece and 16 year old nephew so we can board a plane to Taiwan. My parents are fulfilling a lifelong dream (actually mostly my dad’s dream) of spending 6 months in their home country hanging out with family and they are flying all their kids out for the Christmas holidays. We’ve been talking about this trip for months – it’s hard to believe it’s almost time to go.
Subject: Taiwan 2014 – 6 days to go
I leave for Taiwan in less than a week. I haven’t been there since 1988. My dad and mom are there for 6 months, so my dad got tickets for his three kids to come visit. Two out of three of us are divorced/separated – fitting national stats. My brother with the “intact” family is bringing his wife and two kids – one just graduated from college and one is still in high school. My kids are not going (long story – buy me dinner sometime and you will get an earful). Anyway, it will be an adventure, I am sure.
I am looking forward to lots of food – high glycemic foods like dumplings and Chinese bread (Bao) – just the kind of food I daily tell my patients to avoid. My dad’s family is huge (he had eight siblings), so there will be many relatives to visit. Both of my parents met while attending medical school in Taipei, so I will probably meet a lot of their classmates as well.
Now I am starting to regret that I rebelled against Chinese school as a child. I was born in New York City and grew up in the Philly burbs. My parents wanted me to go to Chinese school but did not insist and they spoke a mix of English, Japanese (they lived through the Japanese occupation of Taiwan as children), Taiwanese and Mandarin. It is sad that I probably know more Hebrew than Chinese from helping my two boys prepare for their Bar Mitzvahs. I am sure there will be a lot that I do not understand and will get asked a hundred times, “Why you no speaka Chinese??? Ay Yaaah!” (That is the Chinese expression that most closely approximates the Yiddish “Oy Vey)”
Subject: Taiwan blog – 2014 – 3 days to go
Feeling a little nervous about leaving the practice and my patients for 2 weeks. I have never taken this much time away from the practice (I am a full time fertility doctor in a busy IVF practice at IRMS in Livingston, NJ).
My longest time away was in 2012 when I spent a week in Beijing to speak to a group of Chinese physicians who were IVF program directors from all over the country about IVF in the USA. This was comprised of an entire week of lectures at Beijing University China Center for Economic Research. Luckily the 40 hours of lectures were really only 20 because we needed translation time. Most of the physicians seemed to speak English quite well but seemed to appreciate getting the information in both English and Chinese. It was an amazing experience.
My dad is now busy sending my resume around to various relatives in healthcare in Taiwan (he is a retired general surgeon and my mom is a retired pediatrician) trying to get me a speaking gig. I told him I want to talk to as many people as possible about my favorite topics – IVF, freezing eggs and health and wellness. There are a lot of things I cannot talk to my dad about. He’s not the most approachable person in the world, a classic general surgeon. I remember hearing him yelling at the residents over the phone, so as a little girl I just tried to stay out of trouble. He never seemed to know what to do or say to me back then. Once I went to medical school, everything changed. We had so many things to talk about, so many things in common – it’s still a good thing. “Serena”, he would say as I practiced the surgical knots he taught me, “You need to tie a thousand percent outside the OR so you can be one hundred percent inside the OR!” He had classical training – lots of call, yes sir, no sir, should I cut the suture too short or too long sir? He passed a lot of that along to me, which definitely helped me at Hopkins. At that time Hopkins was a very macho residency, the more call the better, because then you got to see more patients. You got grilled in rounds and if you didn’t know something, you got reamed. I expected all that ahead of time just from talking with my dad. I knew not to feel entitled to do anything in surgery until I could be a good surgical assistant. This required anticipating the lead surgeon’s moves, actually understanding the surgery, the anatomy, and actually assisting the surgeon instead of being the anxious intern who is eager to jump in and just do as much as possible (which just annoys the surgeon).
Anyway, it might be nice to give a lecture or to talk to some people about IVF and what I do, now that my resume is all over the country! My dad may be retired from medicine but he’s not really retired. He’s having a great time.
My mom is not the retiring kind either. They have not been able to go to Taiwan until now because my mom was afraid to leave her busy pediatrics practice. Finally at age 80 she decided to retire. She had a hard time saying good bye to her patients, but her internist finally convinced her it would be better for her health to retire. My mom was always on call for her patients. I remember many family dinners as a child being interrupted by my mom being on the phone with a worried parent who had a sick baby….”How much diarrhea does the baby have? Is the stool completely liquid or just soft?” Yeah… great dinnertime conversation – I can eat through anything – nothing phases me.
Back to me feeling nervous about leaving the practice. I have been telling everyone about my trip; letting the patients know, clarifying their plans and the things they have to do to get ready to cycle (start treatment), and informing them who will be their resource while I am gone. I am very nervous but my patients seem very happy for me often sending me well wishes such as, “have a great trip Dr Chen!”, “Have a great time!”, “That is so exciting!”, and , ”That’s really awesome for you!”.
It warms my heart and I feel really grateful to have all these amazing and wonderful people in my lives. Such a cliché –but it really is a privilege to be a doctor, to take care of patients, to be trusted with such intimate information and to be able to make a difference. I’m sounding like a sappy lifetime movie now, but it really amazes me how my patients are wishing me well while they are struggling with infertility, which can be such a heart-wrenching personal tragedy.
Subject: Taiwan blog day minus 1
Our car will be picking up six Chens and hauling us to JFK in an hour. My two brothers, sister in law, and niece and nephew. My niece works at a film production company and is busy downloading movies onto her laptop. I plan to hang with her on the plane.
I finally finished packing. I feel that I have both too many and too little of everything. Too many dressy clothes, too many casual clothes, not enough toiletries, not enough shoes? I suppose that “too many” depends on your point of view. I was quite proud of my packing, just four pairs of shoes! One pair of sneakers, dressy sandals, less dressy sandals, and casual sandals. All in neutral colors that would coordinate with all my neutral colored clothing. My brother was disappointed that he needed more than one pair of shoes. Everything is relative.
Now I am busy asking Dr. Google about best strategies to handle jet lag. Many different recommendations. Some are fun like, “reset your light-dark cycle by wearing sunglasses on the plane. You can pretend you’re a rock star.” I like that one. Some are not so appealing. “Avoid alcohol”, Hmmmm…Not fun. I have brought some melatonin and Benadryl. Jet lag is what I am dreading most.
Subject: Taiwan blog: Day One
We are here! Mom and Dad were waiting at the gate outside customs for us. It is very early Sunday. We went for a traditional Chinese breakfast in the heart of Taipei. It consisted of half-diner and half-food cart. It is very crowded. I eat big bowls of hot sweet or sour tofu and crusty fried bread, so good!
We drop our bags at the hotel but can’t check in for another 7 hours.
We spend the time walking around the city. We visit NTU: National Taiwan University. My parents started medical school here in 1951. Then they met, fell in love, became doctors, came to the U.S. for training and had three kids.
Taiwan Blog Day 3-4
Today is the second day of bus touring Taiwan style: big orange bus with tasseled curtains, comfy reclining seats and multiple built in microphones and speakers for…Karaoke!
Yesterday we went to a national park and the North Coast of Taiwan. We had unusually beautiful weather despite this being the rainy season. After lots of walking, we watched a DVD on the bus about the Northern Coast. The rest of the trip consisted of a women singing French songs which played softly over the bus sound system. This kind of gave our trip an Indie movie feel, “The Watermelon Road: An extended American family of Chinese descent loses their way but finds meaning in their lives on a bus trip in Taiwan”.
Okay fine, I agree, I will never find success as an Indie filmmaker… I suppose I will try to stick to making test tube babies.
The Chinese diet is very high on the glycemic index. So many carbs! Tons of sugary treats to be had at the market, and tons of rice and noodles with every meal. I try to focus on the veggies but cannot resist the incredibly delicious juicy pork dumplings. I will get back to trying to eat healthier after vacation.
We have lunch at a market by the sea. The market has a crazy chaotic order: lots of loud talking and movement but everyone is polite, although the shopkeepers push their wares very assertively. The eating area is very crowded. We grab two tables for our party of 14 then walk half a block down the street to the famous duck and crab stand stationed right outside a Buddhist temple. Butchers chop roasted duck with lightning speed on butcher blocks in the open air and we quickly walk back to the tables with large plates of steaming noodles, veggies and cow stomach, sliced duck with fresh ginger, delicately fried crabs, sautéed veggies and big plates of tender and fresh bamboo shoots. Tons of people are here, but unlike US food courts there is a fast turnover and someone is there to clean the table as soon as one party leaves, efficiently loading the bright and shiny metal tables with clean plastic plates, chopsticks, napkins and cups of tea for the next group.
Today’s bus ride starts with a short Discovery Channel piece on the Hsuehshin Tunnel, an engineering marvel that has cut the long commute from the eastern burbs into Taipei by 75%. Pretty awesome, but now that I know all of the details about the massive geologic challenges they faced in digging this tunnel I can’t help but be just a little worried about it collapsing around us. After about half an hour, we literally see the light at the end of the tunnel and I feel a little better.
For our first rest and tour stop we go to the Taiwan Center for Pastry Innovation: more carbs!
Now the 18 of us climb back into the bus: This is four generations of Chens. The youngest is Andrew at age 4, the oldest is my dad’s older sister Auko (“older sister”) at 90 (and still going very strong).
We are winding on a cliff-side road halfway up an Oceanside mountain. I look over the side rail as the mountain drops steeply into an intense Aqua to deep blue sea. Beautiful.
We stop for construction in the road. This allows us to get out, stretch our legs and take photos of the view. Once we are back on the bus, more food of course. One of the aunts passes out packs of dried squid, (think beef jerky only with squid). Next some sugar cane to chew. Uh-oh, now the karaoke book is being passed around.
We do okay with Let It Be by The Beatles, but bring it home with Country Roads. You really haven’t lived until you sing about West Virginia in a bus full of Chinese people channeling John Denver in the mountains of Taiwan.
Taiwan Blog Day 5 Christmas Day
It’s now Christmas here as we are 13 hours ahead of the East coast. We settle into an unfamiliar rhythm. All of our cellular data is off to avoid international data charges. We take photos all day long then post dozens of photos at night when we get to a hotel with wireless access, this gives us much needed electronic brain rest.
It is cloudy, rainy, and gray today. We make our way out of Taroko Park and head down to the east coast of Taiwan.
On the way there are multiple tourist stops. It is very civilized, with bathrooms available at every stop. We look at ancient prehistoric stones – Taiwanese Stone Henge. I teach my sister-in-law how to do selfies on her iPhone. Now she wants to do selfies with everyone. I think her 23yo daughter and her 17yo son are going to strangle me. (Sorry guys!) There are scenic outlooks over cliffs which plunge into a blue sea. We stop for lunch at an organic farm, eat boar meat, stinky tofu, wild greens, and watch a demo of cooking with hot stones. We stop at the marker for the Tropic of Cancer and move into the tropical zone (and a little closer to the equator). Then, another stop at a famous bao (Chinese bun) place, where the fluffy hot steamed bread is filled with juicy pork.
Some other random places we stopped include a large pool filled with fish and surrounded by souvenir shops, and a place where water runs uphill.
Throughout the journey the 4 TV screens always have something on: Taiwan Has Talent; A sitcom featuring the adventures of a chimp in overalls wearing a bandana and a bulldog wearing a backpack; A drama about an FBI investigation of a murder of a Chinese American that takes place in Taiwan; and last but not least…..Karaoke!
Taiwan Blog Day 6, December 26, 2014
I woke up early this morning. There is no fitness center in the hotel, so I find a conference room to do my 7 minute High Intensity Circuit Training (HICT) workout and a few minutes of yoga and stretching. I am very stiff from so many hours on the bus.
For breakfast we try the Buddha Head (shijia) fruit that is unique to Taiwan. It looks like a plump artichoke on the outside, the inside is very soft, a little slimy, and very sweet. The grandparents are very excited for us to love this stuff as it brings back fond memories of childhood. I am really not enamored of this stuff but nonetheless I smile and eat. My politeness is rewarded about an hour later when the older aunties stop the bus to buy an entire crate of the stuff. We end up carrying this fruit around with us wherever we go. Hungry? No worries! We have more of the sweet, slimy, weird Taiwanese fruit! Happy! Happy! (not). My dad has been yacking about this fruit for days and days, on and on about how he had this when he was a child. But in the end, if you ask him if he likes it, he says no he really does not. I guess he just wanted us to experience the same food torture?
We are now driving down the coast, eating watermelon, dipping our toes in the ocean at Baisha beach at the southwestern tip of Taiwan, and birdwatching at Longluan Lake. We stop at South gate Pin Tong County at a baseball field to view the sunset and a rainbow.
For dinner we eat Pintong fish stomach. It is Shi Jiongs birthday. We drink to his birthday, family and health. “Genbei!” (Bottoms up, literally “empty cup”) We say as we raise our glasses of Taiwan beer.
930p arrives finally at my dad’s home town, the port city of Kaohsiung. My aunt and her niece have two big apartments in a luxury high-rise downtown. My mom and dad are staying with my aunt for 6 months. They arrived around Thanksgiving and will stay through April.
I go out with my brother Mike and my niece Lauren to get some gum, beer and scotch. Once back in the apartment we can relax, log into the Internet and upload all the photos of the day onto the Chen family cloud and Facebook. It is weird to have such limited episodic access to the Internet.
Taiwan Blog Day 7
Back on the bus! Today we are going to a famous shipbuilding yard at the port in Kaohsiung.
Kaohsiung’s brand new sparkling main library sports a dramatic four story mural on the glittering glass face. The art was rendered by my young cousin, rising artist and industrial designer YenAn Chen (aka “Anson”).
At Jong Shiyn Shipbuilding Group we see Jade Yachts, Coast guard boats, tugboats, and huge commercial tuna, grouper, mackerel, and squid fishing boats. The owner is neighbors and friends with my aunt so we go to the shipyard and get a film and tour of two of the shipyards, and get to board a 30 foot/ 5 bedroom/ 4 bathroom luxury yacht. My niece and nephew decide that the hospitable and gentlemanly Mr. Han who owns this hugely impressive company reminds them of an evil villain in a James Bond movie (mostly because of his somewhat dramatic looks, unusually long wavy hair, expensive tailored clothing and dark glasses) “Mr. Han, the name is Bond…James Bond” (followed by piercing, significant looks into the camera).
Taiwan Blog Day 8
It is Monday December 29, 2014. We go to Tainan, the oldest Confucius Temple in Taiwan. My niece and nephew torture my parents by taking dozens of photos in front of the Confucius scrolls while calling out to them to “Look wise Ama and Pop pop!”
My parents can’t stop smiling and the photos get a lot of likes on Facebook.
At the Fish Market at Ohahliao “Oyster Village” we watch fishermen gutting fish on the dock. Pulling out roe, testicles and stomachs out of the Mullets to be sold separately. We eat mullet testicles. They are kind of mushy, but not really fishy, kind of creamy. If you can wrap your brain around what you are eating, they are actually much tastier than fish or pig stomachs.
Taiwan Blog day 9
There are 10 of us plus our driver in a very efficient Hyundai van (4 rows of seats, 3 rows of 3 plus 2 people up front). We have to load ourselves in order, like a human puzzle in a metal box. Once we buckle up, it’s quite comfortable.
We drive up north to Chisan to visit the family graves. My aunt has a bag full of incense. After a little bit of a search for the headstones at the immaculately clean hillside site we find Uncle Number 5’s gravestone, light incense, say a prayer, and take photos. Then on to cousin Akiong (uncle number 2’s only son who died of a heart attack at age 49. We just met the three sisters the other night). Same routine: incense, prayer, photos. Then a prayer to the God who watches over the graves along with incense. Finally after walking through a dozen rows looking for the character for “Chen” and finding a lot of Chen’s but not the right one, we find the one that has a double red headstone 4 rows above the black stone section. We perform the same routine. Incense, short silent prayer and a few photos under an incredibly clear blue sky.
The country air is clear, Kaohsiung clearly has a smog problem in comparison. What are we humans doing to our health with all this pollution? New Jersey’s air is so much cleaner – hard to believe.
For dinner we eat small freshwater eels at a street side cafe. They are smoky from the hot wok, and yummy. After midnight I wake up with a stomach ache, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Not fun. Could it be the eels? Everyone else is fine. Hopefully this will resolve. This will not make the 14 hour flight back very easy (ugh).
Taiwan Blog Post Script
Today is my 6th day back, and first full day at work. Sleep has been odd and the brain is definitely still feeling jet lagged. Like dropping my keys inside my car, right underneath my nose and not being able to locate them for 20 full minutes.
The trip was amazing and wonderful. The best part was hanging out for hours and days with family I hardly ever get to see. Seeing my parents happy and full of stories and memories was amazing. Just hanging out with the New Jersey Chens for an extended period of time was wonderful. They get hungry as often as I do and are not surprised by the frequent requests for bathroom breaks. They are totally supportive of late night runs for scotch and love to post on Facebook and like all my photos – my people!
So nice to go to the cafeteria and get a big cup of Starbucks and a big avocado and cheese wrap. Pizza has got to be one of the greatest inventions ever – how does anyone in Asia survive without it?
Copyright Serena H. Chen MD 2014-2015