Awakening the Dragon

Carolyn Kraus

It’s Taipei, Taiwan. A rash is flaming up my neck, closing in on my right cheekbone as I scoop up my lecture notes and climb onto the university auditorium stage. This is the first of five lectures I’m slated to deliver on similar themes in the space of three days. How can I go on? I wonder, as blisters swell and pop and weep down my cheeks. But, peering down from behind a lectern, feeling two hundred pairs of expectant eyes upon me, I turn to the dry-erase board and print in big black grease-pencil letters: “WHAT IS CIVIC ENGAGEMENT?”

Taiwan‘s not responsible for my scabrous condition. My neck itched before the plane even landed yesterday afternoon. I’d felt the first tinglings as I reclined in my Silver Elite chair-bed, scarfing up five-course meals ordered from the vegetarian menu. I ignored the muffled voices of my fellow travelers in Economy, fetally positioned and munching mini-pretzels beyond the blue canvas curtain. Was my skin condition a symptom of proletarian remorse—the legacy of my upbringing and the mandates of academic culture?  I’d suffered the knees and elbows of coach-class seating during lots of previous airline journeys. But in the seduction of first class where the armchairs gave shiatsu massage and the chafing dishes kept coming, I’d stretched out and stuffed myself into a guilty stupor with stir-fry and egg rolls and a mysterious vegetable concoction called “Jin-Jen-Goo-Goo.”

Arriving in Taipei, my face hot and blotchy, I’d hurried to the airport bathroom to slather on Cover Girl foundation before meeting my university hosts for a welcoming banquet.  Meanwhile, I sifted through possible explanations for the reptilian face in the mirror. Some flesh-eating fungus picked up on the plane? Those mysterious hors d’oeuvres wrapped in bright green banana leaves? Or just nerves?

At the banquet last night, thoughtful attention was paid to my vegetarian diet. My hosts had ordered up a platter of authentically shaped faux crabs and oysters sculpted in tofu. After raising their glasses to toast “our honored, distinguished speaker,” they had heaped my plate high with the flesh-colored delicacies. “Vegetarian,” they’d insisted, nodding vehemently, but there was an ancient and fish-like smell to most of my dinner. I haven’t yet warmed to the Chinese version of Chinese food.

This morning, with my right ear red and swollen and throbbing, I’d tugged on my navy-blue power suit and dragged myself through the motorcycle-exhaust-fumed Taipei heat to a waiting cab. As we tore across the city, I noted in speed-by glimpses a few pagoda-shaped structures and some conventional skyscrapers. In the distance, the 101-story Taipei Financial Building ascended into the clouds. Arriving at the university just in time for my first appearance, I was hustled through an anteroom lined with orderly pairs of shoes and escorted into a packed auditorium. That’s when I climbed to the stage in my stocking feet and scrawled my grease-pencil lecture theme on the board: "WHAT IS CIVIC ENGAGEMENT?"

My preparations have been hurried. A few weeks earlier, a colleague at my Midwestern American university had passed along my name to the English Department here in Taipei. They’d subsequently asked me to headline a lecture series—apparently as a last-minute replacement speaker. I’d politely declined, explaining that, as an English professor who’d written only one short article on the subject, I was scarcely qualified as an expert on civic engagement—and, besides, I spoke no Mandarin. In response, the Taiwanese Department Chair had urgently renewed the offer, adding a number of enticements:  a small stipend, a round-trip plane ticket, and hotel accommodations during the week of “Duanwu,” the city's fabulous Dragon Boat Festival and Races.

Dragon boats? That caught my attention. A quick Internet search turned up photos of oversized canoes with prows carved into fire-breathing dragons. Each boat carried two rows of bare-chested rowers, paddling frantically. Blue, green, and gold pennants fluttered against the boats’ red-painted scales. A sweat-beaded drummer kept up the cadence. A photo of the annual festival’s opening ceremony showed a local dignitary “awakening the dragon’s spirit” after a year of dry-dock slumber by poking the beast’s bulging eyes with a brush dipped in red paint. When I learned from Wikipedia that Chinese dragons embody the will and ideals of the community, I wondered if dragons accounted for the focus on civic engagement during the week of “Duanwu.”  In an email response, my Taiwanese host dismissed the connection, explaining that the university was interested in community service as a component in higher education, a concept relatively new to Taiwan. After wrapping up my duties, he emphasized, I'd have two extra days to enjoy the races and see the city. Incentive indeed, and a break from my dull, wintry Midwestern teaching routine.

What's more, I thought, the trip would be educational. I would observe the ancient cultural tradition of dragon-boat racing. I’d also get my first look at the island where Chang-Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Chinese government had fled in 1949 when the Communists captured the mainland. But arrangements with the university remained vague. Persistent email inquiries failed to clarify the level of English proficiency I could expect from my audiences or whether I would be assigned a translator.

"What the hell, I'll go," I decided, after receiving billing instructions for a first-class plane ticket to Taipei the following week. I hadn’t exactly lectured on civic engagement before, but I could gather information from my more engaged colleagues and do some fast cramming. Besides, I’d commanded audiences in classrooms for years. What could go wrong?

Indeed. As I pace back and forth on the auditorium’s stage, face blistered and throbbing, one ear goes numb. Still, I'm confident after twenty minutes that I've done a fair job of describing the trend in American universities to encourage community service as part of the higher education curriculum. I break down the word "education" into its Latin components for my politely attentive Mandarin-speaking audience—mostly young people dressed like my students back home in blue jeans and T-shirts.  I explain that education literally means "to lead out."

"To lead out of what?" I ask the group. Then I sketch a shaky pyramid on the board, caption it "Ivory Tower" and surround it with arrows pointing outward to indicate the university's obligation to engage with communities beyond its ivy-covered walls. Glancing at my grease-pencil drawing, which leans like the Tower of Pisa, I await responses from the audience. Meanwhile, my belly starts itching like mad, so I dart behind the podium, surreptitiously hitch up my white summer blouse, and scratch, noting with alarm that my stomach now matches the Taiwanese flag hanging on a rear wall in all its scarlet glory. From this vantage point, the faces gazing up from the graduated amphitheater appear, not so much engaged as perplexed, so I fold up my notes and call for more general questions.

No hands.

My eyes scan the front row and fix on a professorial-looking fellow who’s nodding slightly, his chin cupped in one hand.

“Any questions about civic engagement?”

Again, two hundred blank stares.

“Any questions about American universities?”


“Any questions about America?”

My English-Mandarin speaking handler, a thin, bespectacled young woman assigned to accompany me throughout the lecture series, motions to me from her front row post and stage-whispers the news that Q/A is not a traditional teaching format here.  She has prepared slips of paper, which we pass around, instructing everyone to write down a question. We sort through the results as the audience waits silently.

Nearly half the respondents have painstakingly copied “WHAT IS  CIVIC ENGAGEMENT” from the board.  One person has written, "Is this Honda Civic?" But the exercise is not an absolute dud. Someone has ventured, "Is civic engagement like world peace?" That’s all the encouragement I need.

"Brilliant question," I gush, waving the slip of paper in the air like a tiny white flag.  Something I can sink my teeth into, as a blister goes gooey, and dribbles down my neck. 

The professor in the front row is still nodding, but when I attempt to make eye contact, his gaze darts away.

“So, when students go outside the university, they help build houses. They participate in local government. They learn from people in the community. They share what they’ve learned in school,” I explain. “People begin to recognize their common goals.” Raising four flaming fingers to make air quotes, I repeat the slogan I’ve seen on bumper stickers in the U.S.: “Think globally. Act locally.”

Gazing out at a maelstrom of blank expressions, I blather on in this vein as my watch’s minute hand inches forward. “I mean, if we don’t understand one another, how can we expect. . . .” My neck prickles like mad where vast blisters are oozing.  My train of thought rumbles to a halt. I’m flinching and wincing as the rash ravages a shoulder, mounts an assault down my arm, and advances toward the elbow. But I struggle to hit a ringing note of conclusion: “Cooperation among communities is like a microcosm for cooperation in wider arenas. So yes. For sure. Absolutely. Civic engagement is a lot like world peace.”

As the auditorium ripples with polite applause, heat flashes across my face and my body sways uncontrollably. I close my eyes to steady myself and open them to see my hosts from the English Department rushing the stage with expressions of alarm.

“You are ill?” inquires the Department Chair, a middle-aged man with a grey suit and buzz cut.

“The face is quite red,” observes his woman colleague.

“She must go to the clinic!” cries the Chair. He turns to the crowd filing out through the auditorium door and calls out, “Samuel!”

A sturdy male graduate student with a black ponytail emerges from the crowd, takes instructions from the Chair, and hustles my handler and me into a white minivan. As we speed through the simmering heat, my eyes follow Samuel’s ponytail that swishes like a shiny pendulum as the van whips around motor scooters that zip across our path. Eventually, Samuel delivers us to a bungalow in an alley off a busy street lined with tailors, barbers, and small grocery storefronts. Shoppers hurry by, some in white surgical masks. Were the masks worn to ward off the pervasive motorcycle exhaust on the streets of Taipei? Or was there some other danger in the air? I finger the angry ridges now sprouting on my neck.

Inside the clinic, we’re hustled past a counter, through a door, and into a white-walled room. 

"Worst case of hives ever seen," proclaims the middle-aged male doctor who examines me. "You are suffering stress?" 

“ I don’t feel stress,” I insist, shaking my sweaty brown curls as the doctor snatches up a clipboard and scrawls something onto a form. “I only feel itchy and achy and very red.”

He turns to me, one eyebrow raised: “Chinese color of good luck.”

Is this intended as a joke? Well, the doc isn’t smiling. The room is silent except for a small, whirring, ineffectual fan.

The doctor wipes his brow on the sleeve of his white coat. “Worst time of year,” he adds as he hands me the prescription. “Allergy. Heat stroke. Influenza. . . .”

He sends me off to a nursing station where I’m injected with antihistamine, handed a vial of pink tablets, and ordered to bed.

Drugged, jet-lagged, and twitching like a pithed frog, I return with my handler to the van, which tears back across Taipei. Doctor’s orders aside, I’m delivered to a restaurant near the University, where a half-dozen academics cluster in the foyer, business cards extended. The lunch menu lists a "vegetarian pizza," which turns out to be a flour tortilla heaped with sliced bananas, smothered in grated cheese, and topped with chunks of ginger and red pepper. Eyeing the well-meant concoction and stifling a gag, I recall the elder George Bush’s puking into the lap of the Japanese Prime Minister—inspiring the Japanese to coin a new word: “Bushburu”—to barf in public.

“No,” I assure myself, as I claw at the welts on my neck. “I haven’t sunk that low yet.”   

Faithful Samuel pulls up to the restaurant to collect me, and soon we’re headed for the university auditorium where I’ll make my final appearance of the day, As the van plunges through narrow back streets, I reflect on my visit thus far. The University staff has been unstintingly kind. They’ve treated their beet-red, high-maintenance guest with inexplicable reverence. Hand-painted signs posted all over campus welcomed me here in both English and Mandarin. Faculty members brought offerings of flowers and colorful boxed sweets. Pots of fresh yellow chrysanthemums lined the packed auditorium.

Back at my hotel at last on the evening after my second and final lecture of the day, I ride up to my fourth-floor room. Beneath swollen eyelids, I squint into the elevator’s mirrored walls at my face, a glowing relief map of scales, bumps, and ridges. Shuffling down the corridor to my room, I peel off my power suit and drag my itchy carcass to the bathroom for the first of a dozen cold showers.

The air conditioner is stuck on “OFF.”  The instructions are in Mandarin. The desk clerk on duty downstairs speaks no English. There’s no possibility of sleep in the damp, 90-degree heat. Naked, I slide open the windows and haul from my suitcase a hastily packed volume on Chinese legends, riffling its pages to find the section on dragons. Research—the academic’s fallback device for coping with personal ills. Besides, if I can survive the next two days, I still plan to take in the dragon festival known as Duanwu. Between trips to the shower, I read through the sweltering night to the steady whoosh of motor scooters on the street below my open window.

Chinese dragons, it turns out, occupy an elaborate system of classifications and sub-classifications in a culture that dotes on categories. The book lists nine physical species, from “horned” and “winged,” to “coiled” and “homeless” dragons. There are, furthermore, four dragon kings representing each of the four seas associated with China. There are five major personality types, from the “logical and creative” wood dragon to the “pushy but objective” fire dragon to the “strong-willed and inflexible” metal dragon. This orderly arrangement of dragon sensibilities reminds me of the Myers/Briggs-type personality inventories that I’d once administered to a group of undergraduates enrolled in an internship seminar. Imagining worst-case scenarios for my lectures, I’d copied one of these tests off the web and thrown them into my luggage along with the legend book as I dashed out the door for the airport. It was a desperate back-up strategy, but I knew so little about my topic. What if my mind just went blank?

I pull the surveys from my suitcase and stash them in the bottom of my day pack before subjecting my fiery flesh to yet another cold shower, then returning to the comforting distraction of research.

According to my book of legends, scholars trace the origins of the Duanwu Festival to ancient fertility rites conducted during Southern China’s hot, insect-ridden summers, when the Five Gods of Plague ran amok in the villages and people felt helpless before the powers of nature. The dragon boat races themselves evolved more than twenty centuries back, among the folk rituals designed to please and appease the River Dragon, who lives in a palace deep in the water, controls the forces of nature, and requires veneration and sacrifice. The earliest races involved violent clashes between competing crews, egged on by screaming, rock-hurling partisans on the riverbank. “A man overboard—even a whole crew, was considered a blood offering to the dragon deity. A lucky omen,” I read with alarm. Rescues were forbidden.

Under the circumstances, why would anyone crew, I wondered. Reading on, I learned that that participation in the races was considered a weird form of community service. A sated dragon meant pervasive good luck, good health, and abundant crops. 

Modern-day crowds don’t throw rocks and no one drowns in the races these days, though boat crews paddle, drummers pound, and celebrants cheer them on with undiminished passion. The River Dragon has to be content with tributes of “zongzhi,” packets of sweetened rice wrapped in bamboo leaves that revelers fling into the water.

After reading the gruesome history of Dragon Boat Racing, I have to remind myself that, in spite of their demeanor and ghastly appearance, Chinese dragons are actually the good guys. Unlike the evil monsters of Western lore, Eastern dragons are divine creatures, wise and protective, generally more peaceful than troublesome. But they’re also temperamental and vain. They demand to be worshipped and properly fed. A slighted dragon could wreak havoc on the land, breathing out black clouds, calling forth droughts and floods.

All this talk about feeding the dragon is working up my appetite. With lunch still sputtering in my stomach, I’d declined tonight’s dinner invite. Hesitantly, I pick up the phone and punch in the room service code.

“Hungry,” I pronounce slowly when a high female voice greets me in Mandarin. “No meat.”

“Okay fine. Very hungry,” comes the cheerful reply.

Wrapping up in a robe and returning to my book to await the mystery snack, I learn that, at some point in the mists of history, a separate legend merged with the ancient dragon–worshipping fertility rituals and became associated with Duanwu and the Dragon Boat Races. This is the tragic tale of Qu Yuan, a great Chinese poet and social idealist who lived in the third century BC and was beloved for both his poetry and his commitment to civic duty. As I read Qu Yuan’s story, it occurs to me, as a recently anointed community service pro, that this man might even be said to constitute an ancient model of civic engagement.

A contemporary of Confucius, Qu was a court official in the southernmost of China’s seven warring states. Because Qu was a favorite of the king as well as the people, envious rivals duped the king into banishing him. “Why should loyal men be slain, flatterers rewards obtain?” the poet wrote in one of his laments.  He is said to have carved some of the best-loved early Chinese poetry into the walls of shrines while an exile, wandering broken-hearted around the Southern countryside. Unbeknownst to Qu, the king longed for his favorite minister’s return, as his state descended into corruption and military defeat. In despair for his homeland, believing himself unloved, the exiled poet waded into a river, clutching a gigantic rock in order to drown himself. When news of Qu’s desperate action reached the common people, they swarmed to the rescue in their fishing boats. Arriving too late, they settled for beating drums and slapping the water with their paddles to keep the fish from consuming Qu’s body. The Dragon Boat Races are said to be a reenactment of the race into the river to save Qu Yuan .

It’s now 4 A.M. Having nibbled the rice and vegetables ringing a generous hunk of pork, I’m sprawled atop my hotel bed sheets, my tender skin cringing with each gust of hot air from the window, as I contemplate Qu Yuan’s tragedy of miscommunication. After my first day of lecturing, the legend strikes a chord. I know close to nothing about my audiences. My lectures are completely inappropriate; I may as well be doing pantomime. Staggering into a cool river lashed to a rock has a certain appeal.

The next morning, I drag my weary self back to the University and head for the English Department, passing through a courtyard where students are hunkered down on the grass in small groups, packing pyramids of sticky rice into bamboo-leaf bundles. These are the zongzhi they’ll toss into the Keelung River to appease the River Dragon, or, according to the Qu Yuan legend, to distract the fish from lunching on the body of a beloved poet.

When I show up at his office, the English Department Chair takes one look at my oozing right ear, trundles me off to the school nurse, and I'm back in the little white van with my handler and Samuel. Roaring through the already steaming streets, past a blur of morning commuters on motor scooter and foot, we pull up to a second clinic. Here I get another shot of antihistamine, plus a bottle of lotion labeled “Sin Baby.” Back in the van, I slather the thick white concoction over arms, face, and belly as we dash back to the University with faithful Samuel at the wheel. Somehow he always collects me on time.

This audience is clearly older, more advanced in English than yesterday's. I see nods of agreement, along with the scattering of raised eyebrows I've come to expect. All ghosted up in Sin Baby as I deliver my third lecture on Civic Engagement, I doubtless resemble the Five Gods of Plague reputed to wander the streets during Dragon Boat season.

When the lecture is over, a few people linger. "Your speech was awesome," a young woman tells me. “It is an honor to meet you.” I want to throw my arms around her and would have too, if my rash hadn't busted through its chalky glaze, percolating down my arms, seeping under my fingernails.

The next morning, the last day of my lectures, both ears are stiff like a Schnauzer’s and cauliflowered like a lousy boxer’s. My neck is bleeding where my fingernails have been raking it. My mind is a feverish blur. With one eye sealed shut, I look like a florid pirate.

“No more clinics,” the school nurse decrees. It’s off with Samuel and the handler to a hospital where I'm bustled to the end of a fast-moving line and treated to the efficiencies of Taiwan's National Health Care System. One line to register. Another line to receive a number. A third for the diagnosis. Swept along from station to station like a dragon boat in a roiling current, I finally hand off my number 39 to the bright-eyed English-speaking dermatologist, before collapsing onto a folding chair. It’s 10:00 A.M. I'm her thirty-ninth patient of the day.   

“Have you had this before?” the doctor inquires.

I shake my head, shrug my flaming shoulders, and sleepily admit: “You got me.”

“Have you eaten new foods?”

I describe those elite-class delicacies I’d been served on the plane, the tofu shellfish, the ginger and red-pepper pizza.

The doctor shakes her head in disapproval. "Bad, bad hives," she intones as she dashes off a prescription for steroids and appends a list of forbidden foods typed in Mandarin. According to my handler the list includes: "no mango, no litchi, no strawberry, no moon cake, no alcohol, no shark fin, no cheese." There's a fourth line to pick up a Ziploc baggie of capsules and tablets. A fifth line for two ampoules of liquid medication, which I carry to a sixth station, where the medications are injected. One shot in each mangy arm, and I'm done--no charge. The entire process has consumed a mere thirty minutes. 

Back in the University van with my weary handler at my side, I shamelessly pull off my shirt and slop on more Sin Baby. Samuel, at the wheel, politely avoids any glance into his rear view mirror.

This time when I enter the auditorium, slip off my shoes, and add them to the hundred or more neatly paired in the foyer, my fifth and final group is already seated.

Now striped red-and-white, I'm a Sin Baby candy cane. Both ears are crusted, stuck flat to the sides of my head. My clawed pustules are seeping into my eyes and trickling down my chest as I climb to the stage—noting indifferently that my power skirt may be on inside out.  This group is a class of English beginners. All eyes are drawn to the ghastly apparition onstage, as I trot out Qu Yuan and his dedication to public service, weaving it skillfully into my canned lecture on civic engagement.

This audience clearly doesn’t understand a word, which is actually a good thing. After twenty minutes, I relinquish the stage to my handler, who puts on a floor show of her own. Lulled by the soft, rhythmic sound of her voice, I watch her thin arms gesturing as she addresses the audience in Mandarin, nodding my way on occasion.  I imagine her recounting the tribulations of the last two days and pleading for absolution for “our honored speaker”—the red, scaly beast now wilted upon an auditorium chair.

The students laugh. I'm too beat to ask why, though I wonder if it’s possibly the inch-wide hole in one of my white cotton socks. Eyelids glued at half-mast when I’d stashed my shoes in the vestibule, I hadn’t noticed the damage.

“Who cares?” I tell myself. I’m just grateful for the respite. I’m beginning to smell the barn.

But no. It turns out the university has scheduled a surprise sixth appearance for this afternoon. Either numerical concepts are as flexible as vegetarian ones, or I'm a bigger smash than I've so far detected. This time I'm dismayed to recognize several repeat customers in attendance, so I can't recycle my standard lecture. Reaching into my backpack, I pull out the emergency bundle of Myers/Briggs-type personality inventories. My colleague translates the list of questions into Mandarin as I follow along in English:  “Would you rather be considered (A) a practical person or (B) an ingenious person?” “Would you rather work under a boss who is (A) good-natured but often inconsistent, or (B) sharp-tongued but always logical?” The students work diligently, filling in squares with the stubby yellow pencils I’d thought to bring along in a zip-lock baggie. When the test concludes, we enlist some students to score it with clear plastic templates. Meanwhile, I doodle illustrative stick figures on the board and expound upon Personality Types, a system I find about as plausible as belief in the Four Dragon Kings. Never mind. My integrity has vanished along with any sign of my actual skin.

At the end of my sixth and final lecture, the English Faculty lines up to thank me. “I’ll be fine on my own from here on,” I insist to the Chair, who agrees--a bit readily in my view. He rushes to his office and returns carrying a little white box tied with a ribbon. “Red, the color of good luck,” he points out, echoing the allergy doctor at yesterday’s clinic. I drop the box into my purse and shake hands to bid farewell to a half-dozen smiling professors. I try not to speculate on the source of their joy.

As the van pulls up to my hotel for the last time, I raise a flaming arm to wave goodbye to Samuel. I tell myself it could have been worse. One ear is coming unstuck, and it looks as if I'm finally going to lose those pounds I've been fighting, since my stomach churns each time I catch a glimpse of my red dragon-face in the mirror.

Two days before I fly back home. Hives or no hives, I'm going to, by god, do Taiwan. I may never again lay eyes on the brave little island that has faced down the Communists for more than six decades. I'll begin with the Duanwu festival that kicks off on the broad Keelung River. There'll be kite flying, carnival rides, drum beating contests, and of course, the dragon boat races. Below my hotel window, motor scooters gush along nonstop like blood through an artery as I gratefully drift off to sleep.

It’s nearly 3:00 P.M when I wake the next day, just in time to catch a bus to the Keelung and the last of the races. I stagger down to the river, hoping to blend into the crowd, my hat pulled down over my still-volcanic skin. People smile politely. A few edge away, glancing back at me out of the corners of their eyes.

As I search for a spot on the benches lined up by the river, an old man smiles, bows, and offers his front-row seat. Accustomed by now to courtesy and solicitude, even a touch of dragon-worthy reverence, I merely nod back and plop down to study the fleet of dragon boats lined up at the starting line, all eager for the last flag to drop.

As they set off, the rowing teams keep time with the drummers, dipping their paddles in frantic unison. The flag-catchers squat atop the dragons’ heads where they’ll lean dangerously far over the bow, each straining to be first to snatch the victory flag.

The energy of the all-male crews with their glistening bare chests contrasts to the dazed appearance of the dragons, hauled out for their fifth and final race of the day, their eyes newly “awakened” with dabs of red paint. I lock red eyes with one slightly shopworn beast and detect a weary, imperious kinship in its gaze.

The next day, on the plane heading home, I reflect on my time in Taiwan. Despite my good intentions, I wrought chaos on the University’s nice lecture plans and proved quite a troublesome creature.

Digging through my carry-on bags for the bottle of Sin Baby to dab on my still-raging hide, I notice the gift of the English Department Chair, the little white box forgotten at the bottom of my purse. Pulling off the red ribbon, I lift the lid to discover a pyramid-shaped bundle wrapped in bamboo leaves, and I recognize the fragrant scent of the dragon-appeasing sticky rice treat known as zongzhi.

Leaning back in my Silver Elite recliner, I tune out a whimpering infant on the other side of the blue curtain. “I could get used to this,” I muse, as I wiggle my scaly toes and stretch out my blazing red limbs.