I was driving through a big intersection where the street narrows – from having scooter lanes on my initial side to not having them on the other side. I was angled left to accommodate this narrowing; I also briefly entertained the notion of getting gas at the service station on the opposite corner from me, so I may have been angled slightly more left than normal.
“We both notice that we’re headed for disaster,”
But this woman comes flying up beside me on the left, too close and too fast. We both notice that we’re headed for disaster, she tries to angle more to the left, but her back tire clips my front tire, and it’s all over… She falls immediately to the left, her scooter crashing onto her ankle; my scooter hits her fallen bike, and I go flying off, burn my leg against her muffler mid-air, and land on my head in the middle of the street. I jump up immediately, help the woman’s bike off of her leg, and the next few hours were a blur of cops and hospitals and breathalyzer tests (it was 10:30 in the morning, so no, I had not been drinking, thankyouverymuch).
I have heard time and time again (and even noticed myself to a small degree) that Taiwanese are notorious for looking for and pouncing on any and every opportunity to get money. They’re wonderfully nice, happy people, but when money gets involved, they apparently turn bloodthirsty and will exercise any and all methods to obtain said money. And maybe my [Western] friends are paranoid, but they’ve told me that this is true especially when Taiwanese think they can get money from a white person, because they assume we’re all rich saps.
“I wasn’t avoiding the issue – I was just blindsided, stunned, saddened, and a little guilty;”
I received a call from a private number. Never one to turn down intrigue, I answered. A woman in broken English asked if I was Nick. I confirmed, and she proceeded to tell me that she was a friend of the lady that I’d “hit” with my scooter (let’s call her Phyllis henceforth, because I don’t know anyone with that name to offend). The friend said that Phyllis worked at a department store, where she was on her feet all day; she had broken her ankle in the wreck, and the doctor said she wouldn’t be able to work for four months. And so, the friend said, Phyllis wants to know how much you’re willing to give her as compensation.
In a rare instance of intelligent reticence from me, I told the friend that I would have to speak to some people first, and that I’d get back to her the next week. I wasn’t avoiding the issue – I was just blindsided, stunned, saddened, and a little guilty; but I was also a smidge incredulous.
So many emotions were flowing through me after I hung up the phone. I felt horribly for this woman’s alleged injury and alleged loss of earnings, especially since my only keepsake from the wreck was a badly burned spot on my leg.
I also felt incredibly helpless, since I wasn’t exactly rolling in the dough at the time (still not); even if I decided (or it was decided for me) to give Phyllis some money, I didn’t really have any money to give.
And then there were the echoes. The echoes of all of my friends telling me to watch out for just this sort of thing. “Yeah,” I could hear in Jefferey’s British accent. “Watch out. She’ll probably come after you wanting money, no matter what the truth is. She sees you – you’re white, you’re young, you’re handsome [his words], she’ll think you have a lot of money. All of her friends are telling her to get everything she can from you. Just be careful.”
I actually saw Jefferey that night. I told him the tale. Using some choice words I don’t care to repeat here, he said that Phyllis was almost assuredly an unsavory character up to no good. I told several other people that evening and over the course of the next few days – not in an effort to earn their pity, mind you, but to seek their advice. One guy told me that he’d gone through the same thing in Taipei and ended up having to pay the Taiwanese person a hefty chunk of change.
The thing is, I didn’t know how to feel. Do I believe this woman? Do I accept that she has a broken ankle and offer her some money? Or do I follow the advice of every single one of my friends (my Taiwanese friends included), which was to tell her to kindly go elsewhere and hassle me no more.
“I ultimately decided to go with Option B,”
I ultimately decided to go with Option B, and there were two pretty substantial reasons: 1) Remember, I visited her in the hospital 45 minutes after the wreck. I knew her bike had fallen on her ankle. And so, while seeing her lying in her ER resting bed, I made a point to look at this ankle and take some mental notes, just in case. I mostly was looking for swelling, and I saw none. Not a bit. If her ankle was really broken, that thing would have ballooned up in a matter of minutes. But still, it could have been broken. She could have had a magical delayed reaction to the break. And that brings us to reason #2) Even if Phyllis was hurt, even if her ankle was broken, there was one major detail that I had to be reminded of: The accident wasn’t my fault. I was probably angled a bit too far left, and she was definitely speeding and passing too close, and boom… it happened. The police report said it was both drivers’ faults, and they wouldn’t assign more blame on one than the other. So while I could feel badly for her and hope inside that she was back on her feet soon, I felt I was under no legal – or moral – obligation to pay for her bad luck. And the fact that she and her friends were acting like it was an agreed-upon conclusion that I had hit her and caused all this ruckus made me all the more reluctant to play nicely at all.
I told the appropriate people at school (my Chinese staff, my boss, and the big boss), and they had my back, 100%. They told me to redirect anyone who contacted me on Phyllis’ behalf to the school, and they would guide me from there.
That was indeed a blessing, because as anyone reading this can attest, it’s hard enough dealing with the aftermaths of a wreck in your own language and your own legal system and your own culture. Dealing with one here includes a different language, a different legal system, and a completely different culture. The Chinese staff at school dealt with the brunt of the back-and-forth over the next month or so, and I’m pretty sure they only told me what I needed to know. It was the biggest of favors, and one for which I will always be in their debts.
“As far as I knew, things were under control,”
I actually pushed the whole ordeal to the back of my mind and didn’t worry about it all that often. As far as I knew, things were under control, my school had my back. It looked like I, unlike so many westerners before me, might avoid being visited upon by the Scooter Wreck Demons and their money-sucking Dustbusters (which are no doubt made in Taiwan).
And then I got the summons in the mail. Phyllis apparently had the taste for blood, and she’d decided to get the government involved. I was to appear at the main district police station on October 14th, whereupon we would have ourselves an official “mediation.”
This piece of mail soured my mood a bit, and it brought all the worry and grief I’d successfully shoved into the recesses of my consciousness racing right back to the front. Of course, this summons was mostly in Chinese, so beyond the general message I didn’t really understand what it said. Kathy(the new head of my school’s Chinese staff) told me exactly what it was and said it wasn’t so bad. “It’s the government,” she said. “Not court. So it should be okay.” This made me feel somewhat better, but still… It would have been nicer if, instead of the summons in my mail that day, it had been, say, a chocolate cake from my sainted mother, or a giant check from Ed McMahon in heaven.
I assumed – correctly – that any government hearing would be conducted in Chinese. This put me at a distinct disadvantage. But as I said, my school had my back, and so I called my boss, Bill. Bill is Canadian, but he’s been here eight years, and his Chinese is flawless. He said he’d be happy to come, but that he thought it would be better if I had an actual Taiwanese person in there with me, instead. He put me in touch with his friend Tim, a young Taiwanese man who had dealt with an accident negotiation of his own a couple years back and done quite well for himself. This made me feel ok.
“I wore a tie and everything,”
And so, on the afternoon of Wednesday, October 14, Tim and I met at my school and scootered to the police station about 2 kms away. We both had our Sunday best on – I wore a tie and everything – and we arrived at about 2:15, 15 minutes before the hearing was slated to begin.
This wasn’t your typical police station. This was a tall government building on the corner of a busy downtown intersection. Our destination was the 5th floor. We exited the elevator and walked down a long corridor, toward a pair of sizable wooden doors, which were open, inviting us in with an icy sterility.
We walked through the doors and entered an incredibly wide room with all the charm of a prison cafeteria – white tile floor, off-white walls, and a giant rectangular table in the middle that nearly stretched from wall to wall. On the opposite side of the table, facing us, were several older, government-looking Taiwanese people. Some of them were reviewing notes, some were talking in hushed tones back and forth, and a couple were simply staring straight ahead.
“they knew who I was as soon as they saw me,”
I suppose it’s not often a white person walks through those doors into that room, because as soon as Tim and I did, the record on the jukebox scratched, the music stopped, and all heads turned toward us. It’s not that they weren’t expecting me – I’m sure I was the only person on the docket that day with an English name; so they knew who I was as soon as they saw me, and they all promptly started trying to pronounce my name to each other. “Neek-O-lahs.” “NEEK-o-las.” “Neek-ha-LOSS.” That was amusing. It’s funny here – it’s almost like you’re a mini-celebrity simply because of your whiteness and your English-ness.
Tim and I sat in a couple of chairs on the near side of the gigantic table, facing the government types. As the minutes rolled on, a few other groups of people here and there straggled into the room and took their seats on our side of the table. “Good God,” I thought, “Phyllis is enlisting the entire cavalry for this hearing.” But no – there are actually several hearings at once, and each mediator (which is what each of the government types actually is) takes a group in dispute and listens to their arguments.
At 2:40, there were still no signs of Phyllis. We thought she might no-show and drop this ridiculousness. But then, at 2:45, her sour face entered the room, walking with what may or may not have been a legitimate limp. They called our case next.
A mediator stood up and signaled for us to meet him at the left corner of civilian side of the table. We all rolled our chairs over there and sat back down in a little negotiation circle. The mediator was a middle-aged Taiwanese man with a full head of thick black hair and gentle, worn-out eyes. He began by asking Phyllis a question.
“Chinese was flying back and forth,”
Let me tell you this – it’s absolutely bizarre to be in the middle of a legal argument in which you’re a central player and have no idea what anyone is saying. Chinese was flying back and forth, glances were being exchanged between everyone (including me), fingers were being pointed at everyone (including me)… and there I was, like a dimwitted toddler in a room full of adults, tugging at mommy’s dress asking her what everyone is saying. Tim, playing the roll of mommy, was wonderful. Not only was he charged with being my translator, he also was fighting on my behalf.
Ok, before I get ahead of myself, let’s go back to the beginning. The mediator asked Phyllis to briefly explain her side. Basically, she told him that I turned left into her crashed into her with my scooter, which made her crash and break her ankle, and now she couldn’t work for three months, and she wanted me to pay her two months salary – $2,000 US!
Tim and I were aghast. $2,000 US?!?! We kindly said there was no way in hell. That’s essentially a whole month’s salary for me, which is absolutely insane, considering the wreck wasn’t my fault in anyone’s eyes but hers. We pulled out the accident report from the police and showed it to the mediator. On one page, there was a diagram of the two scooter paths, which clearly showed that a) I did not turn left into her, and b) she was going much faster than me. The mediator saw this and took it all in. He turned to Phyllis and said something in Chinese to her, and she said things in Chinese back to him. Then he turned to Tim and me and spoke in Chinese, and Tim would spoke back to him. This is basically how the entire negotiation went, with Tim stopping from time to time and explaining things to me as best he could.
“A lot of times, it doesn’t matter whose fault the wreck is”
[Ok, here’s an aside with three things you really need to know in order to completely wrap your head around this story. 1) This whole negotiation process is actually quite common in Taiwan after accidents such as this. Two people get in a wreck, Person A gets hurt (or claims they got hurt), and goes after the Person B’s money. Person A will demand a ridiculous amount, Person B balks, and it’s resolved usually somewhere in the middle. 2) A lot of times, it doesn’t matter whose fault the wreck is – whoever is injured worse in the accident will try to get money from the other person. This is accepted by the legal system here. Somehow this makes sense to the Taiwanese. 3) At the time of my wreck, I didn’t have any sort of driver’s license or insurance (I still don’t, but I’m working on it). This put me at a decided disadvantage for these legal proceedings – many times, if two people get in an accident and one of them doesn’t have a license, the police will just automatically fault that driver for the accident. I was lucky that didn’t happen to me, but with any sort of pushing by Phyllis, the police could change their report and blame me, in which case I’d be screwed. Also, if these mediations failed to resolve the dispute between Phyllis and me, the next step was court, where I’d almost certainly be fined (in excess of $500 US, I’m told) for not having a license, plus whatever the court decided I owed Phyllis.
Ok, I hope that clears a few gray areas up for you.]
“She said she wanted to see the proof,”
Tim and I held firm, saying I would absolutely not pay her that much money. The mediator was getting tired and wanted someone to give in. Finally, Phyllis came down to $1,500, and then $1,000. At this point, I let both her and the mediator know that I’d missed some days at work due to the accident, as well, and if she wanted to play that game, then fine. I told her that I’d pay her $1,000 US, minus the money I’d lost out on. That seemed fair to the mediator, and he turned to Phyillis and told her as much. She said she wanted to see the proof that I’d missed time at work, and I requested to see hers, as well. We agreed upon this and told the mediator we’d like a second meeting to finalize everything.
He exhaled, wiped his brow, and scheduled a second hearing for Phyllis and I two weeks out, on Tuesday, October 27. I exhaled, too. I was content, and even a little proud. I’d stood up to the system and secured myself a little victory, I thought.
For the next two weeks, I felt pretty good about things, and I didn’t much think about Phyllis or the impending negotiation or money. All in all, I had dodged a bullet, I thought – a sour-faced, money-hungry bullet.
On Monday – the day before the second (and we hoped final) negotiation – I called Bill, to remind him that I needed the formal proof of me missing time at school due to the accident. He said I could pick it up that evening. He also said that Tim was very much ready for Round 2 with Phyillis, and that Tim would once again meet me outside the police station at 2:15 on Tuesday.
I woke up early Tuesday, and I was ready. I took my customary morning walk around the park, ate some breakfast, took care of some things, and then got all gussied up.
I met up with Tim outside the police station, and we again strolled down the long corridor, through the imposing doorway, and into the wide negotiation room. We looked left and saw that Phyllis and her sour face had managed to get here early this time. Tim and I didn’t even have time to sit down before they called our case. A different negotiator than last time told us to go over to the right side of the room and meet him in the area between the end of the table and the wall. We all walked over there, shook hands with him, and once again sat in a little negotiation circle.
“he let us know right away that he had the power to decide this case,”
There were two major personnel changes since our first mediation, and these would prove costly for me. First, as I mentioned, our negotiator was a different man. He was another middle-aged Taiwanese man, but his face was more serious than our last one, and his eyes more intense. In a kind but stern tone, he let us know right away that he had the power to decide this case at any time, and if either of us refused to accept his decision, we would go straight to court. And remember, court scared me, because of the whole not-having-a-license thing.
The other new person at this mediation was a woman who’d come with Phyllis. At our first hearing, Phyllis’ sister came in halfway through, but her presence was very inconsequential, and she seemed there more for moral support than anything.
But the woman who was with Phyllis this time – I can’t tell you word-for-word anything she said (because of the Chinese), but I can tell you that, as far as I’m concerned, she’s not a nice lady, and her soul is polluted with darkness and frowns.
She was a tall, slender Taiwanese woman, in her late 30s maybe, with straight jet-black hair to the middle of her neck; her eyes danced with villainy, and the only smiles she had in supply were of the sarcastic variety. The perfect Thelma to Phyllis’ Louise.
“Spittle was flying out of her angry mouth,”
Just like our first mediator had done at the first hearing, this one began by asking Phyllis why she had requested this meeting and what she wanted from me. Buoyed I guess by the presence of her evil companion, Phyllis embarked on quite the diatribe. I wasn’t sure what she was saying, but she didn’t seem to be talking about our agreement. Spittle was flying out of her angry mouth, and she made a motion with her hands, showing the negotiator how I’d “turned left” right into her on that fateful morning. I looked at Tim; his mouth had fallen open from his shock.
“Everything was my fault.”
When Phyllis was done, she sat back in her chair, he face, as always, contorted into that sour countenance of hers. Tim finally had a chance to fill me in.
“She says that you hit her with your scooter, and that she broke her ankle and cannot work, and that she wants you to give her two-months’ salary – $2,600 US.”
“What??” I barked. “We had an agreement! Tell her that! And ask where twenty-six hundred came from! Last time she said that two months’ salary was two thousand!” Tim relayed my message, and a few of his own, probably. And that’s when Phyllis’ friend chimed in. Tim never told me exactly what she said during the whole hearing, but he kept telling me that she was saying it was all my fault. Everything was my fault.
Tim and I were stunned. Was this really happening? Was Phyllis seriously completely ignoring the agreement we had made less than two weeks ago? She sure seemed to be. When we brought up the fact that we had made this agreement, or that last time she had claimed her monthly salary was $300 US less than this time, she and her friend simply ignored the claims.
This is why having a different negotiator was a costly thing. He hadn’t heard anything at the first meeting, and he apparently didn’t know what transpired at it. Obviously, Tim and I had assumed that some sort of official notes had been kept in the record of this legal dispute, and that he’d be privy to those. But apparently, there were no notes. So when we mentioned this agreement between Phyllis and I, and Phyllis and her friend just ignored it and said that I was responsible for everything, the negotiator had no choice but to start from there. And “from there” means $2,600 US, or about $80,000 NT.
If I could do it all over again, there’s several things I’d do differently. We should have gotten our agreement in writing after the first hearing. And since we didn’t, I wish we’d tried to find our first negotiator while we were at our second hearing, so he could tell this new guy about the agreement. But alas, we didn’t, and so we fought an uphill battle.
Despite being stern and a bit pushy, the negotiator was actually a decent man. He seemed to believe Tim and I about the agreement (at least to a degree), and he immediately told Phyllis that $80,000NT was ridiculous. He talked her down to $50,000NT (about $1,500 US). She and the witch lady begrudgingly acquiesced.
He then turned to me and asked if I accepted, and I told him absolutely not. He reminded me that he could make his decision at any time, and if he thought I was being too difficult, he could just send us to court. I swallowed hard but held firm. Phyllis and the She-Wolf both started yelling at me cattily. I then pulled out the police report and turned to the page with the diagram of the accident. I showed it to the negotiator and then to the two women. I pointed to the part showing that I definitely did not turn left and that she definitely was going faster than me (see incident report image at top of post) and said “See this?”
“See this? See this?” she howled over and over in a thick Asian accent.”
And that’s when Phyllis’ friend, the Wicked Witch of the Far East, sent my brain into a rage. As I pointed earnestly at the diagram, she looked me in the eyes, laughing sarcastically, and mocked me. “See this? See this?” she howled over and over in a thick Asian accent.
Amazingly – and stunningly to me, really – I kept my temper relatively in check after that. I just sat back in my chair and smiled my blood back down to a normal level. The negotiator was past ready for this dispute to be over, but to his credit, he let it continue. I looked at him with a sigh and said (through Tim, of course), “Ok, $15,000, just to be done with all this.” The negotiator passed this on to the ladies, and they laughed again, saying I must be out of my mind. The Queen of Black Hearts again chimed in with her assessment that I was absolutely and positively 100% to blame for everything regarding this accident, and possibly global warming, and the suffering of any and all puppies.
The negotiator then asked me if I’d settle for $30,000. I said no; then I leaned in and told him two things: 1) I’m truly sorry that Phyllis’ ankle was “broken,” and I hope that it heals nicely and she can get back to stomping on the dreams of terminally sick children work soon; but the accident clearly wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t her fault either. It just happened. And I just did not see how I could be held financially responsible for her bad luck. 2) Just because I’m white doesn’t mean I have a lot of money (or any, at the moment); I saved to afford the plane ticket here, and I’ve only been in Taiwan for three months and haven’t really built up a bank account yet. And so if she wanted to take all my money, fine. But she was gonna have to wait for it.
“The ladies were having none of it.”
The negotiator gave me a warm half-smile, then looked skyward exhaustedly as he pondered this mess before him. We were the only dispute left in the giant room, and had been for quite some time. He asked if I could do $25,000. I said $20,000. The ladies were having none of it. They were still belly-aching about having to come down from $80,000. They looked at me and said it was only a $5,000 difference. I responded with, “Yeah, exactly! So you should be fine with $20,000!”
But in the end, $25,000 was as far down as the negotiator would come. That’s just under $800 US. Tim fought hard for me, too; but the $25,000 wall was the one we couldn’t break through. I did, however, convince the negotiator let me pay it in two installments in November and December.
Upset but still a little relieved to be done with this, I sat back in my chair and stared straight ahead. After a minute or so, we got up, signed the official papers and shook hands with the negotiator. Meanwhile, Phyllis and her black-hearted friend had the nerve to bitch and complain to our negotiator about the settlement even after we were done. I found it both amusing and infuriating that they were upset because they weren’t able to rip me off any more than they did. We could still hear them griping as we walked out the giant doors.
Tim was seething over the whole thing, and he kept apologizing. But he had absolutely nothing to apologize for. He did everything he could have done, and I’m in his eternal debt for helping me – a stranger before this ordeal – out so much. Having to pay the money was just a temporary obstacle; I’m just glad the whole thing’s finally over.