Spending a couple of weeks in hospital can be a horrible experience but my mother & I were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves in a really unusual, lovely place…
My mother hadn’t told me much about the hospital other than that it was “special” and in the South Taiwan countryside – she had picked it for the reputation of its orthopaedic surgeons, especially in the procedure needed for her knees…
…turns out it’s a sort of “missionary” hospital, part of the Buddhist Tzu Chi General Hospital group – although this grand, elegant complex housing a sleek, modern facility was nothing like the image that “missionary hospital” usually conjures up for me!
It’s funded by the Tzu Chi Charitable Foundation , which was started by an amazing Taiwanese woman who renounced a comfortable life in her early 20′s to follow the path of a Buddhist monk.
She single-handedly built up the foundation, with the help of a handful of housewives donating 2 cents a day from their grocery money, to the worldwide force it is today, with members & volunteers in 47 countries, several hospitals and impressive achievements in better social & community services, medical care and education.
(There is a general tradition in Taiwan of devoting a regular slot of time to charity work, especially if you are lucky to have become financially wealthy. It’s founded on the idea of “karma”, I guess, and the strong Chinese belief in reincarnation – so that you “give back” for the luck you have had in this life, as well as ensuring that you will be reborn well in the next one. )
I am the first to admit that I tend to be sceptical about such “touchy-feely, new-age concepts” but arriving at the hospital, you do certainly feel something different – dare I say it, a general vibe of “zen calm” and “selfless love & giving towards others”, even.
Half the staff seemed to be volunteers who greeted patients arriving at the front entrance with beaming smiles and helped them negotiate the huge maze of corridors and levels, to find their right clinics and appointments, as well as any other questions and needs they may have.
There was a general feeling of peacefulness permeating the place, despite the huge numbers of people pouring through the front doors, and all doctors & nursing staff seemed to radiate patience and goodwill – something that’s not always common in many other big hospitals I’ve visited! At the end of each day, the volunteers (which included groups of primary school children – what a great way to instill good values!) gathered in the hospital’s magnificent lobby to finish their work with a joint Buddhist chant/prayer session…
…and throughout the hospital, on any wall or available space, were printed quotes and sayings, reminding you to value the simple things in life and to joy in giving to others, without expecting anything in return.
Now, I’m a terrible cynic and tend to roll my eyes when I hear things like that…but this time, I found myself quite moved. It’s hard to be surrounded by so much goodwill and not start to believe that the world really could be a better place if only people were a bit less selfish and materialistic – and embraced the simpler pleasures in life….
There is one aspect of staying in a Buddhist hospital that has been very interesting: totally vegetarian food!
Yup, in line with Buddhist philosophies, all food in the hospital, including the public cafe, is strictly vegetarian. For someone who is used to eating some form of meat (whether red or white) at almost every meal, I was a bit taken aback at first – but again, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I didn’t really miss meat that much at all. Mainly because the vegetarian food was so good!
I have to say, if you have to be vegetarian, then I think Asia is the place to do it. The Chinese (and other Asian nations) are SO much more creative with vegetables, mushrooms, eggs, beans and grains – not to mention tofu! Cooking with soybean in all its forms is like a whole new world.
And not only do you have the most interesting & tasty vegetable dishes but you even have the famous “fake meat” options too. I don’t know how they do it but they can make tofu look and taste like all sorts of things – this was the meal my mother was served on her first night in hospital, which indluded 2 “tofu chicken drumsticks”. I tasted them and let me tell you, not only did they look like chicken and feel like chicken, they even tasted like real chicken meat too! I’ll bet if nobody told you, you probably wouldn’t notice the difference. It was weird.
Tucking hungrily into her first meal post-operation, my mother was in raptures: “…mm…this is the most delicious food…” “…I could easily be vegetarian, you know…” ; “… I’m going to start eating like this from now on…”, “…oh, such a wonderful healthy way of life! I am going to change when I go back home, start having my meals like this…” “…in fact, I think the Buddhist way of life is wonderful – I think I’m going to embrace it…” ” …it’s so wonderful, so selfless, so peaceful…” “…I could be a monk too, you know…”
Hmm…I don’t know if it was the pre-op starvation or the drugs still in her system but I think she would have happily started shaving her head if given the chance! Of course – as is often with my mother – all this passionate enthusiasm waned a few days later when the novelty started to wear off and by the time she was discharged from the hospital, she was clawing her way to the nearest foodcourt, demanding meat and lots of it!
Which is how we found ourselves in a tonkatsu restaurant:
Tonkatsu is another iconic Japanese dish. It’s basically a kind of pork steak cutlet, I guess, covered in lots of special, crispy Japanese breadcrumbs, known as panko. A Japanese version of a schnitzel, you could say (or if you weren’t being West-centric, you could call a schnitzel an Austrian verion of tonkatsu! )
It looks deceptively simple but a good tonkatsu is hard to make – the meat has to be tender and juicy on the inside, seamlessly melded to the light and crispy coating outside, with no oily aftertaste or greasy drippings. It was actually introduced to Japan by the Portuguese, although it has definitely been “Japanicised” over the generations. Nowadays it comes in lots of variations too, such as chicken, beef, fish and with Japanese curry sauce.
Traditionally, though, it’s served cut into sections and eaten with steamed rice, shredded raw cabbage and miso soup – and most importantly, tonkatsu sauce. This is supposed to be like “Japanese Worcestershire sauce” (although I think it tastes nothing like!) – a thick, dark sauce that tastes slightly sweet. In the restaurant we went to, you had the added fun of grinding fresh sesame seeds yourself to add to the sauce…!
If you’re wondering how come we seem to be eating so much Japanese food in Taiwan, that’s because the Japanese occupied Taiwan for about 50 years, until the end of World War II and definitely left their mark!
A lot of Japanese culture has been absorbed into the Taiwanese way of life, from homes having a “tatami room” for sleeping to that excessively polite, apologetic attitude accompanied by constant bowing, in social intereactions.
Often, you feel like you can’t walk around any streets, especially in the big cities, without finding a Japanese restaurant of some sort on every corner….the Taiwanese eat a LOT of Japanese food and are arguably as good at creating Japanese cuisine as the natives themselves.
Well, a few days and tonkatsu meals later, we were finally packing our bags and heading back to Taipei. We were actually going back much earlier than expected – much to my delight – as my mother seemed to be making very good progress and the surgeon was happy for her to continue her recuperation & rehab in our little hotel in Taipei.
I had originally expected to stay down south with my mother for most of my stay and only pop back to Taipei for 1 night before I would have to fly home to Oz…but now I suddenly had the unexpected bonus of several extra days where I could catch up with my best friend, stuff my face some more in Taipei’s wonderful restaurants and yes, even go shopping!
My mother would have to travel back down south in a few weeks for another follow-up appointment at the hospital but in the meantime, we were boarding that whisper-quiet, high-speed monster again and heading for the bright lights of Taipei!