And sometimes, Taiwan eats you [Part 2]
I’m chronicling my post-scooter-wreck saga, in which the woman who participated in the accident with me tries to take all my money, by any means possible. You can read Part 1 here.
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. Cynthia (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.
Now, remember, I’m in Asia (hence the title of this here blog), so 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, James (the same man who interviewed and hired me). James 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 Thomas, 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.
And so, on the afternoon of Wednesday, October 14, Thomas 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.
I suppose it’s not often a white person walks through those doors into that room, because as soon as Thomas 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.
Thomas 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.
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. Thomas, 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!
Thomas 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 Thomas and me and spoke in Chinese, and Thomas would spoke back to him. This is basically how the entire negotiation went, with Thomas stopping from time to time and explaining things to me as best he could.
[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.]
Thomas 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.
Oh, but as we learned two weeks later, winning a battle does not win you the war, and an agreement means nothing in these parts when there’s money involved…