A Holiday Pony Party

Last Saturday, the barn had its holiday party. The day’s schedule featured multiple events: a horse parade, a costume contest, and an obstacle course. This is all great fun for the humans, but for a sensitive, reactive horse, it’s like asking them to participate in a day-long episode of Fear Factor. 

I have a sensitive, reactive horse. If an object, say, a mounting block, has moved position since the last time she encountered it, Navani views it with fear. The kind of fear that indicates she has heard the stories about Pinnochio and is suspicious that other fairies might be out there, granting wishes of sentience willy-nilly. And of course, every object dreams to be free, free to move about and predate on horses. Other, less cautious horses.

Photo by Liz Ostasiewski 

So in the time I had between the invitation and the event, I did everything I could to help set Navani up for success. I introduced her to each element of her costume as it was completed. As new obstacles appeared in the arena, we’d work around and on them. I was especially proud the day we went through the new gate: she listened as I asked her for subtle movements to position me to reach the latch, and when the latch was free, she even bumped the gate open with her nose so we could pass through. I started to feel more confident. We might not cover ourselves in glory during the competition, but we’d probably avoid a Friesian-size freakout with everyone watching.

And then, five days before the party, the tarp tunnel appeared. 

It was nothing more than a large blue tarp affixed to the side of the arena, but the amount of fear it generated was equivalent to its size. Navani spotted it through the arena gate while still in the parking lot and hated it so thoroughly, immediately, that she threatened to rear. If a differently-positioned mounting block was worthy of suspicion and fear, this tarp represented the end of life on Earth. My confidence plummeted.

By the end of the first session in the arena with the tarp, I had convinced her to walk through the tunnel in both directions, in-hand and mounted. I had not, however, convinced her that the tarp posed no threat to her well-being. I thought perhaps asking her to work on a line in a circle near the tarp would desensitize her to it, but she’d veer in on the circle on the tarp side and speed up dramatically when she passed it, looking back to make sure no tentacle slithered out to snatch at her legs. Nothing lasting is built in a day, so I accepted the progress we’d made and determined to expose her to the tarp as much as possible before the party.

The next time we saw the tarp tunnel, someone had scattered pool noodles underneath, also known as foamy fear spaghetti. But I had a secret weapon. After my fall in October, I needed to take a break from riding in order to allow my brain to heal. It was the ideal time to begin clicker training, which I started by loading the clicker: sounding the click every time I gave her food. I did this for short periods over several days, varying the location of the practice space and where I would click so there was no question that the treat was click-related and not location-based. I was also careful not to click whenever she started getting pushy about asking for the food: nudging me, my pockets, the treat pouch, so as to avoid inadvertently teaching her bad habits. She’s a big girl and I don’t want her thinking it’s acceptable to shove people around if she believes they have treats. The way she’d slurp my whole hand into her mouth in her joyous dive for hay pellets was gross and left me a bit concerned for my fingers, but I hoped she’d be more polite as she grew confident that food was coming and accustomed to taking pellets from a cupped hand. Before party prep began, she had started learning to touch a target with her nose but we hadn’t done anything beyond that. 

The difference between the session with the clicker and the session without was almost unbelievable. It had been a couple of weeks since our last click session and I wasn’t sure she’d remember or had made the connection that a click meant food was coming. But that night, she proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that she fully understands its meaning, and her willingness to try everything increases when she knows there’s a potential for food. In a previous obstacle exposure session, I introduced her to a pedestal: a tire with a sturdy wood circle affixed to one side. The idea is to ask her to step up onto it, and though I’d had some success, it took a lot of asking while she circled around it, trying to show me that there actually was no need to go over this thing or touch it at all, really. But that changed as soon as she got the first click for putting a hoof up. She understood what I wanted, saw the value in offering it, and now steps up with no qualms. Same for the wooden bridge that teeter-totters as the horse walks across–suddenly even stepping on and crossing from the raised side was no longer as insurmountable as she’d insisted previously.  The click bridges the communication gap, the reward cements the behavior.

“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds and horses in particular.”

The tunnel was still scary, and the scattered noodles didn’t help matters. Each time through represents real danger…to me. I have to be mindful of her body language and mental limitations every time I expose her to a new fearsome object at home or in the field: her reactions can be big and fast. So, for instance, even though she looks to me for protection from the terror of the tunnel, I cannot allow her to walk through behind me because of what might happen if her fear gets the better of her, whether that’s rearing up and coming down on top of me, or smashing through me to safety like a bowling ball to a pin. It’s a real consideration, as not every walk-through was achieved calmly and more than once I ended up knocked against the arena wall as she shoved past me in her rush to be out.

I don’t know if the idea was that she was supposed to carefully pick her footing through the noodles, but, direct as always, she mashed her way right over the top of them. When I clicked mid-tunnel and she came to a dead stop to collect her reward, noodles shifting underfoot, I began to understand the power of this type of training. She was still nervous and didn’t want to be in there, but the click had happened and so she suspended her discomfort for as long as it took to crunch a small handful of pellets. By the end of the session, I even convinced her to touch the edge of the tarp with her nose a few times;  even with the promise of a food reward she wasn’t eager to do that. Still, it was a vast improvement in her overall comfort level. 

The night before the party, I planned to do a last costume exposure/fitting and some preliminary grooming because Navani is a firm believer in the skincare benefits of a mud facial and a crusty face for the party just wouldn’t do. The joke was on me for showing up at the barn with a plan, because as I crunched through the gravel, arms stuffed with costume, the barn owner called out to me. “Hey! Melissa! You riding your horse today? Because they put up a tent for the party, she’s afraid of it, the ceiling is low, and I don’t want her going through there and wrecking it.”

Of course. Of course this new, out of place structure was, in horse-o-vision, a flappy horror from the pit of her deepest nightmares. It was new and out of place and clearly in cahoots with the tarp tunnel, which, in addition to the pool noodles, now had a second loose tarp underneath. Because it wasn’t dangerous enough already, right? I knew that the plan was to set up the course that day in preparation for the party, so with the tent up and the new tarp, I figured at least that was the last of it and I probably wouldn’t find an arena full of live snakes the next morning or a cannon that fires glitter and screams on either side of the tarp tunnel. Probably. One more night of clicker-enhanced bravery training would help ensure a safer party for everyone. 

We worked on everything, acquainting her with the new tent and the sound and feel of a tarp underfoot combined with pool noodles, and afterward, I asked her to work in a circle again, near the tarp. This time, she didn’t come in off of the circle nearly as much on the tarp side (after a couple of reminders) and she was able to keep a consistent pace and respond to my instructions. I had enough time left to braid her tail and clean up her four-scoop fear poop before I had to clear out of the barn for the night. We were as ready as we were going to get.

 

The Big Day

Since I didn’t accomplish many of my grooming goals the previous evening, I was out and at the barn extra early in the morning. I knew that in the chaos that was to come, there wouldn’t be time or space to get her gleaming, so I took advantage of the opportunity, wrapping up just before the horse yoga class taught by a local vet. Over the course of an hour or so, she walked us through stretching the horse’s legs forward and back, relieving tension in the neck, and finally the “full body wave”, which starts with a butt crunch, moves into a back lift, and then into a neck release. Navani thoroughly enjoyed the process, and by the end, she was so relaxed, head hung low, bottom lip dangling, that she gave off the appearance of being drugged. She seemed even more relaxed than the last time she was actually drugged, potentially because no giant grinding dental bit attached to a drill ever made an appearance. In this relaxed state, she was even receptive to me hugging on her neck, which she normally barely tolerates. I was glad that the day started off with something that relaxed her, made her feel good, and helped improve our bond. I was going to need to cash in on every bit of goodwill I’d ever engendered in her shortly.

Immediately after yoga, it was time to get her costumed and ready for the party. I was all over the place in my ideas leading up to our first ever costumed event, ultimately going with a nod toward the pagan by dressing her as a tree. With a holiday sweater and a red velvet bow on my helmet, I was an accompanying gift. The kind you can’t return and endure with a grimace, perhaps, but a gift nonetheless. To construct the body of the tree, I was inspired by fleece horse exercise sheets, which sit under the saddle and extend down the back and over the rump. To bring the greenery up to her neck, I sewed a felt wreath onto her breast collar (I wanted color and texture to be consistent between the two components and also she’d try to eat a real wreath.). I braided her mane in a running braid down her neck and fixed in some artificial poinsettias, the first and only idea I never deviated from in the six different costumes I considered. And to top it off, I made her a star-shaped leather brow band for her bridle, finished in artificial gold leaf. It practically blazed in contrast to her dark fur. 

Because of the new tables and chairs taking over the front of the barn for the party, I had to get Navani ready in her stall instead of in the normal tacking-up area. We also couldn’t take our normal path to the arena, and the back path is less a path and more an obstacle course in its own right, having to step over extension cords and thread between farm equipment and trucks and trailers and after we got past all of that, the front barn door was 80% closed (horse brain: “different! bad! danger!”) and oh, there’s a glimpse of that tent she was concerned about yesterday and just as we passed the dark gap in the door, someone unseen inside ripped off a loud swath of duct tape and before I could react, Navani had already jumped in fear and landed full bore on the edge of my foot*. 

With the wet weather and ensuing sloppiness of the nearby trails, our outdoor pony parade turned into a parade around the arena which devolved into chaos after two or so laps, with horses going every which way, practicing obstacles, and people with cameras darting among them. We tried and were successful at some of the obstacles: the tinsel curtain, the platform, and the tippy bridge, and with all of these she understood that I was asking her for the same job under saddle as with the clicker, which I think is an impressive association and I was glad to see willingness from her even when it was clear I was not packing treats. The tarp tunnel, however, I could not convince her to approach mounted. I asked her several times and each time she would slant away, flap her lip, or otherwise communicate her concern by disregarding my cues utterly. I could’ve continued to raise the issue. She might have eventually acquiesced. (Maybe. She can really hold on to a thought!) But it was also possible that she’d explode in her fear and cause other horses to panic in her wake, and that was a risk I was unwilling to take.

Photo by Liz Ostasiewski 

Photo by Liz Ostasiewski , awkward “good girl” face is all me and 100% on brand.

I’d already decided that with Navani’s tunnel reticence we wouldn’t be participating in the official competition, and it was right around then that an entirely new group of new obstacles were dragged into the arena, including another giant tarp, which, like its brethren, was a fear-based entity. This is when we got into the most trouble we had all day: stuck between two tarps she feared to approach, she stopped listening to my cues and started veering on a collision course with a person on the ground having a conversation with someone on a horse, neither of whom were paying any attention to their surroundings, including the freaked-out horse dancing in their direction. It’s a Christmas miracle we didn’t crush anyone, and it was at that point I got off: I didn’t have control or at least enough influence and we were becoming a danger to others. I used the rope halter to introduce her to the new stuff in a more controlled, safer way, and then decided she’d had enough for one day and put her away. Though I wish I’d kept her out long enough to watch the neighbor’s mini pony try the obstacles and see how that bold little critter stomped through and touched everything immediately, as I feel she could learn a thing or two from its utter confidence.

I’m of several minds on the introduction of new spontaneous obstacles during the party itself. I think that if you want to have a fair competition and a trial by fire of sorts where no one gets opportunity to practice, this is the way to do it. Or maybe there wasn’t time to fully set up the night before. Or maybe they were being considerate of the space needs of the horse yoga class.  And I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to have less fun because I or my horse couldn’t handle it, which is why I don’t invite myself along on rides where we might be a burden on more experienced horsepeople. But another part of me, the part that felt vulnerable, the part that’s still recovering from a traumatic brain injury, the beginner rider and beginner horse owner of one of the most reactive horses in the barn part is upset that these new things came in when I was mounted, no warning and no choice in the matter. It added more wild cards into a situation that didn’t need them. “Unpredictable events out of my control that could spin out into a deadly situation” is part and parcel of interacting with horses, horseback riding is an inherently dangerous activity, and I cannot blame others for the risks I assume with the horse I chose to buy. But on the other hand, it’s a holiday party, not a serious event. Ultimately I’m left feeling a little annoyed and also feeling that I have no right to be annoyed because it’s not like I helped plan, pay for, or execute the event. How can I complain when other people went to so much work to host a good time? They couldn’t know Navani and I would struggle in this way. At least from the ground, she was more willing to investigate the new obstacles, though touching the snowman with her nose was right out and she was also offended when I took his little claw and used it to pat her.

Photo by Liz Ostasiewski 

Photo by Liz Ostasiewski 

Even with the foot-mashing and the attempted trampling, I would say we had a successful day. Considering her costume and all the other horses (some new!) and their occasionally loud, blinking costumes going in all different directions at different speeds plus all the people and the new objects and the music and everything else, she took it remarkably in stride. Sometimes when I see her snorting and reacting when a flag flaps in the wind, I despair at the idea of ever turning her into the warhorse of my renaissance faire dreams. But I also know that we couldn’t have done any of this a year ago. Six months ago. She’s improving because she’s starting to trust in me. The promise of a food-based reward motivates her, no doubt, but it’s the trust that brings the follow-through. I know it, when I see fear etched in her body language and nothing but trust in her eyes when she follows me into a scary place because I’ve asked. I couldn’t have asked her for a two tarp noodle maneuver earlier in our relationship. That we did so much, relatively calmly, is a testament to the trust we’ve built over time. 

We’re going to be a force to be reckoned with by next Christmas.

Photo by Liz Ostasiewski 

*It’s fine, don’t write my obituary yet.

One year of horse ownership

Building a Relationship

On November 3rd, 2018, I drove to Oregon to buy Navani and bring her home. Though I’d been told she trailer loads, this turned out not to be the case:  it took a grueling three hours to convince her to board. She’d step up on the ramp with her two front hooves and then fly backwards, rearing up, always coming within fractions of an inch of smashing her skull on the trailer roof.

The deed was only finally accomplished with the use of a lip chain, a much harsher method than I would have ever wanted to employ, and not the greatest start to our relationship. If she hadn’t loaded then, if she had continued to fight until the chain drew blood, if she had to be dragged onboard, I would have asked for my check back and left with an empty trailer. Any horse who fights that hard not to go with me is not my horse. I’m certain it didn’t help that the entire family was there, one of them practically sobbing into her mane as the bill of sale was signed.

As it was, the sedative administered to last her the entire trip home had worn off before we even pulled out of the driveway. Thankfully, once she was on board, she rode quietly. When we unloaded her that evening, again she rushed backwards out of the trailer and it was only my desperate grip on the rope that kept her from hitting her head, but it was done. She was home. I had a horse.

Navani belonged to the same family since she was a yearling. Every formative experience she ever had was with them. Her life has revolved around them. From day one, I was less her new friend than her captor. I spent hours in her stall, talking to her and grooming her, giving her treats,  trying to convince her that though things were going to be different for her now, different doesn’t mean bad. Indoctrinating her into the cult of me. Fifteen days later, we had our family photo session for our “look we got a horse” holiday card. In many of the photos, her expression is concerned, her body language tense, ready to flee. I chose one where she merely appeared alert, joining the proud tradition of cards that paint a slightly-too-rosy tint over the facts.

All horses are individuals, of course, but there are shared traits among species, breed, and gender. Ask an equestrian which they prefer, geldings or mares, and be prepared to pull up a chair and sit awhile. I don’t know how much of it is true and how much is misogyny disguised as horsemanship. “Geldings do what they are told, mares are challenging.” “Mares are crazy, I’d never want a mare.” “Geldings are consistent. They’re the same every day. Mares go in heat, they change.” “Geldings are dull; a mare can give you more. You get the trust of a mare and she’ll give you everything. She’ll walk through fire for you.”

Getting that trust takes time. In late December, Navani realized she forgot to give me anything for Christmas and so to commemorate how she felt about our special relationship, gave me a hard fall. I hit the ground so resoundingly that my friend heard the thud from across the arena. I struggled to do anything but lay flat on my back for a week; when I moved I had the distinct feeling my right side was caving in. Three weeks later, I was back in the saddle. 

At her first bodywork session (basically horse massage), the bodyworker asked me what my favorite thing about Navani was, and I really struggled to answer. Our relationship was challenging. It took weeks to convince her to do something as simple as entering the crossties to be groomed. Just like the trailer, she’d back up and threaten to rear. She took food aggressively. On walks, she’d yank me around like the proverbial 1100 pound gorilla who eats whatever she wants, mash my feet, and knock me around. She’d give me as little of her attention as she conceivably could when on the ground and while riding. She was squirrely to ride, weaving around, being avoidant, and dangerous when she’d get scared and take charge. She made it very clear that in a life or death situation, my survival was inconsequential. “My favorite thing? Her, ah..little goatee,” I managed weakly. 

For a good long while, it was less a dream come true than hard, awful, and hideously expensive, with enough hits of brilliant, wonderful, best-thing-I’ve-ever-done dopamine to keep me going. For months, we’d been working on sitting trot, wherein the division of labor is such that she jogs around with me on her back and I just try not to bounce around too much. (And now you know why I buy my horse massages: guilty conscience.) So often in these sessions she felt like a cannon ready to go off; the gentle calf squeeze that signals the transition from walk to trot would cause her to react like I’d spurred her with a Jackie Chan kick because we needed to escape a jet-powered T-Rex. She would launch into a rushy, shitty trot like she was urgently needed in orbit and didn’t have time for any outside opinions. During many of these trots, she felt tense, she would lock up mentally*, occasionally grabbing the bit and zagging out from underneath me, a sickening rollercoaster-like sensation where I would have a moment to hope that my body would continue to travel in the same direction as hers, either naturally or by sheer force of will.  There were enough incidents to make me apprehensive about riding. “This is a hard season” the horsepeople said. “It’ll be better in a couple of months.”

What I’ve learned about horses from a year of being around horsepeople:

Fall: “The weather starts getting crisp, the wind picks up. That makes horses go crazy.”
Winter: “It’s cold, they’re pent up, getting less exercise. That makes horses go crazy.”
Spring: “Hormones are surging, it’s new grass, full of sugar. That makes horses go crazy.”
Summer: “Flies are biting, there’s more activity on the trails. That makes horses go crazy.”

As a horse person, you start obsessing about the weather, the conditions that might help or hinder your ride, how much time you have before the sun sets. You become, almost against your will, an outdoorsperson. 

If you poke around in the horse world, often when someone is having issues with a horse, they’ll refer to “bitting up”; i.e. using a harsher or more severe mouthpiece to apply more force to the horse, to assert more control. Every person who owns and rides a horse will find their own line with regards to equipment. I have never felt comfortable using a bit, and for her part, Navani would resist being bridled but felt very comfortable taking the bit and going as she pleased. On my evaluation visit, I watched their trainer ride her and noted two things in particular: that she was being ridden with a lot of contact with the bit, and her lower lip was flapping, an indicator that she was nervous or uncomfortable or both.

Coercing my horse to open her mouth so I could put a piece of metal in there to assert control doesn’t feel good. I don’t think it felt good to her, either, or she wouldn’t toss her head up to avoid it. I’m also not a huge fan of a lot of contact with the mouth, especially if it’s not necessary, and in mounted archery, I’ll have no contact with her mouth as my hands will be busy with a bow and arrows.

So around the eight month mark, I started using a bitless crossunder bridle, and incidentally, that was when things started to take a turn for the better. From the very first time, she went so well in it that feels unnatural to use anything else. Instead of fighting the bridle, she now puts her nose in when it’s offered to her. She responds to lighter aids. She’s less spooky and snorty on our trail rides. She’s less spooky in general, less likely to duck and run, more likely to listen to me when I tell her that she has no cause for concern. She and I feel more like a team. I recently convinced her to load into a trailer in under a minute. 

I don’t give sole credit to the bridle but I do think that its use dovetailed beautifully with the months of consistent work and training I’d been doing, including all the trot work. We’d done all that trotting for myriad reasons: to help her build fitness and protect her back, to school speeds within the trot, to help me regain confidence after the fall and prepare for the mounted archery clinic I attended, and, as always, to help me become a better rider** and better partner to Navani. I have hope someday we’ll be able to go completely bridleless.

 

Things are clicking for her in other areas, too; the other people who handle her have all come to me separately recently to tell me that they can tell I’ve been working with Navani on her ground manners because she’s not barging them around anymore, either. I’ve been talking to her the whole time. I think it’s only recently that she’s started to believe I’m worth hearing. 

The People

I don’t own enough land to keep my horse at my home. Navani would mow down my back yard to the dirt within a few days, only the high rock content of the soil would keep it from turning into a mud pit, and my neighbors with the roosters and turkeys would finally get a taste of their own medicine as she’d blast calls across the neighborhood, looking for other horses. After she got bored of destroying my ornamental plants, she’d knock out at least one of the supports for my raised deck and then knock down my fence and rampage about the greenbelt. I would love to be able to wake up and look out of my window and see my horse but it’s not feasible now, which means I have to board her. 

When you board a horse at a barn, your experience with your horse is intrinsically tied to the other people boarding there. It’s rare to have the facilities to yourself, and if the other people around are inconsiderate or unpleasant, it negatively influences your horse interactions because instead of quietly building a bond with your animal like you want, you’re forced to make small talk with an asshole. I’m so grateful every day that all the other boarders are such wonderful people who support one another like family. If the barn environment had been different, if people had been snide or gossipy, I don’t know if I would have made it through the hardest parts, when I’m already fighting the Seattle drizzle and depression and grief and daylight savings and the kind of cold that chills me to the bone and mud and her attitude and my attitude and… 

Because this was a need-to-sell not a want-to-sell situation, Navani’s former owners are still heavily invested in her in a way that I find unsettling and boundary-violating. We conducted a transaction. Why does it follow that we have to be in each other’s lives after that? They’ve sent messages asking me to post more photos of her, they’ve tried to befriend my friends, there’s been an endless stream of borderline condescending or insulting comments or training suggestions. “Her weight actually looks good!” “Navani told me she wants you to buy her such-and-such.” Aside from being annoyed that she is intimating that she’s having conversations with my horse, the audacity of telling me the things she thinks I should buy by couching them as my horse’s suggestion! 

There’s also a previous rider who until very recently still had a crowdfunding page up to buy my horse, referring to her as her heart horse and her soulmate. She friend requested me on social media almost immediately after I purchased Navani, and I just let the request hang because although it felt petty and chickenshit to directly refuse my recent livestock acquisition’s soulmate‘s desperate plea to stay in touch across the miles, I also didn’t feel like I owed this complete stranger access to my entire life, which I write very sincerely and hypocritically, publicly on the Internet. She followed Navani on Instagram for a time, “liking” all the photos except the ones I was also in. Which is fine of course; we’re not friends. 

I have really struggled to reconcile the things they have told me about their experience with her and my experience with her. For example, they claimed online that she is such a compassionate horse that once when her rider became unbalanced, she fell to her knees to prevent her from falling off. But they also told me in person that if I was going to hit her, I should just not hit her on the face, because it makes her rear. Even now with our vastly improved relationship, I cannot imagine this horse ever falling to her knees to protect me, which seems unfair to me since I don’t hit her at all much less hit her on so many places of her body that I can figure out which places really upset her. 

The Expenses

Owning a horse is horrendously expensive. Less so than having a child in daycare, but nothing to sneeze at. Monthly board, farrier visits every six to eight weeks, tack purchasing, maintenance (this includes having a saddle fitter out a couple times a year to adjust and flock), and replacement, chiropractic, acupuncture, bodywork, feed supplements, unguents and creams for skin soothing and hair conditioning, sprays to repel flies and thrush and dust, special tools to scrape crap out of hooves and parasites off of legs, nets to control food intake, vet visits (all with an extra “showing up” fee that you can only avoid by hauling your horse in, which would necessitate owning a truck and a trailer and all their attendant maintenances) for shots, tooth care, bi-annual turd analysis and any lameness or illness needs, lessons and clinics…

I haven’t even gotten into stuff for me yet, but a decent pair of winter riding pants and a new pair of paddock boots to replace the ones that are currently falling apart after two years of use will set me back over three hundred dollars. Plus now I need a new helmet since I hit my head on my most recent fall and safety dictates that a helmet is only good for one impact. Navani is jet black because she is a black hole for every dollar I’ve ever thought about having.

TL;DR

My first year with a horse has flown by, and the difference between the horse she was then and the horse she is today in both temperament and condition is as stark as night and day. The changes in me have been nearly as radical. I can’t wait to see where we are at this time next year.

 

*Pretty much exactly what my December accident looked like, except I was consistently saying turn left…turn left…TURN LEFTTURNLEFTFORTHELOVEOFGODTURNLE–
**My next goal is to become a strong enough rider to be able to do one of the Ride Egypt vacations, but as of publication, Navani’s canter is still unbalanced and a bit scary to ride so it’s not something I’ve tried much. It’s a big dream.

Night Market: The Flavors of a Friendship, Sugar and Nine Spice

I first met Beth on a train platform in Taipei. I was eighteen and she had just turned seventeen and we each knew we were meeting “the other American” in the large group of exchange students from around the world who would be spending the next year there, living in the homes of strangers we were to call our parents. We’d each just recently arrived, and I was nervous that she wouldn’t like me and nervous I’d be recognized for the imposter that I was in equal measure.

An imposter is what I felt like: I coasted through school with ease, and the parts that weren’t easy, I relied on my social ties with my smarter or more studious peers to pull me through. Frequently lamented in progress reports and report cards was my inability to apply myself; a fair criticism. Between the stress of my home life,  my after school and weekend job, and my desperate need to be liked by my peers, I took relief where I could get relief, at school, by doing the bare minimum that would get me the grade that would avoid repercussions at home. I did thoroughly apply myself to one area: telling authority figures what they wanted to hear, and I used that skill to carry me almost seven thousand miles away, to this train platform, with assurances that I was eager to learn the language, embrace the culture, and be an ambassador of sorts for the United States. I wanted to do those things well but what I really wanted was what the Rotary leaders had promised over and over again: the best year of my life. I wanted it and I was interested in any country that was willing to take me in and let me have it. At that time, we were required to buy an open-ended airline ticket, a ticket where your arrival date is set but your departure could be any date within a year of purchase, the better to be wielded by the program managers as a “behave or we’ll send you home” cudgel.

The nature of the ticket weighed heavily in my mind when I first met Beth. I was intimidated by her: she seemed much too cool and smart to possibly want to be my friend, and likely able to see right through my bullshit, and she could end the best year of my life before it could properly begin. But instead we went shopping and took sticker pictures together and ate food and became friends. Later, Beth confessed to me that she didn’t know if she’d like me at first because I was too pretty. I laughed–she had my number, all right. 

Our year was the last year the Taiwanese Rotary had all the exchange students together in a group: we had bonded together too much, they said, to the exclusion of making local friends. Of course we formed strong ties with one another; we were all teenagers going through a similar experience that was vastly dissimilar to our home lives. We were all schooled in Mandarin together, spending hours learning our bo-po-mo-fos and yi-er-san-sis, concluding our month of all day lessons by putting on a play. There were more exchange students than high schools, so even after we were split apart from the larger group, we still had familiar faces around which was crucial because the regular high school students were too busy striving toward college to have time for anyone still struggling with their Chinese ABCs. While all the exchange students had this experience in common to bond over and our individual friendships were based on personality, we also fractured along country lines, making Beth and I unquestionable allies and lifelong friends. We were American and that meant something, even though in the age of George W. we did occasionally pretend to hail from elsewhere so people wouldn’t ask us questions about our stupid president (2019: “Hold my beer.”). From elsewhere, together. That year was hard and all the exchange students clung together to survive it as we were used as pawns in subtle social games we didn’t understand while we navigated young adulthood and homesickness and culture shock and quasi-independence, and all of its assorted BIG feelings. Of course we bonded.  

So it wasn’t the best year of my life (how sad it would be to assume I could have none better in store ahead?) but I did make some of the best friends of my life, first and foremost Beth. We were obnoxious foreign tourist teenagers together, we hung around cafes for longer than was socially acceptable together, we shopped together, visited night markets and museums and slept on wooden beds and attended festivals and ate entrails stuffed with offal together. We got tattoos and $3 ear piercings together. We broke all the rules together, Beth lamenting that her host father was a police officer and she was constantly afraid of being caught with alcohol on her breath. We spent hours haunting restaurants that served free diet coke refills, assembling a yearbook which we mass photocopied in 7-11. We obsessed and laughed about things that German student Max deemed “a little bit stupid”. 

It was hard to go from a year of intense togetherness to being separated by thousands of miles, me in California and Beth in Pennsylvania, and though we kept in touch online, it was not the same. The best time I had in my tumultuous semester at Drexel was when Beth came to visit. I was overjoyed when over ten years later, her work brought her to Seattle and we could be in-person friends again. We spent a lot of time together, visiting museums, going to shows, taking tours, walking and talking for hours. 

Beth was more than cool: she was funny, and vivacious, and kind. At my bridal shower, Beth gave me a turquoise bud vase and told me that she’d been at a conference where the artist was selling them but the attendees assumed they were free and walked off with all of them, and that she felt so badly for the artist that she bought a vase whenever she saw them. That’s the kind of person Beth was, in her life, in her advocacy for causes she believed in, in her work as a nurse: thoughtful, compassionate, empathetic. She was a better friend to me than I have been to anyone, and she was that way with everyone. 

Last year, Beth died following a battle with kidney disease. Attending the memorial service felt useless, mingling with people she knew whom I’d never met in a part of the country where we shared no history. What comfort could these strangers take from me or I from them? I briefly entertained the idea of a return to Taiwan, with or without any of our mutual far-flung companions, but when I used Google maps to try and find the building in which my second host family lived and a point of reference to my favorite beef noodle soup shop, I couldn’t recognize anything. It’s been twenty years in a major metropolitan area: of course it’s different. I didn’t know what I hoped I would find there, the thing that would give me closure, that would help me accept her death.

So instead I went with mutual friends to a night market, to honor her memory by sharing the flavors of our past and a little bit of the unsavory carnival element inherent to the night market. The ones I visited in my youth were certainly seedier. They were places that sold bootleg CDs and DVDs, shots of snake blood, counterfeit designer goods, junky jewelry, a variety of marital aids and they just happened to also have food. This one caters more to foodies and families and also sells some other uncompelling crap: junky jewelry, special effects contact lenses*, thin onesies, stickers and some as-someone-has-seen-on-TV.  Things for which the night market is just a short stop on their inevitable journey to a landfill. The vibe was right. 

I felt it was important to take a group photo together, as taking photos together was one of our primary hobbies in Taiwan. It’d be even better if there were a few purikura booths** but handing my camera to a complete stranger is fine, too. 

I first experienced stinky tofu (臭豆腐) shortly after my arrival to Taipei; my host family took me to enjoy this “special taste” within days, as if they were afraid someone else would feed it to me first and they’d miss their chance at seeing my reaction. It was a simpler time, there wasn’t as much on TV, and watching your exchange daughter gag on the creamy garbage smell of cho-doufu was an entertaining diversion. Cho-doufu is tofu that’s been fermented in brine made from other fermented things in an unholy multiplication of stank alchemy. This tofu, puissant with odorifiousness, is then deep fried to put a crispy skin on its wobbling innards. In the second neighborhood I lived in, an enterprising vendor would make his rounds, pushing  his fry cart down the street, the wafting scent curling into people’s homes as he called out “cho! doufu” over and over again. He could have saved his voice: the smell is unmistakable. Twenty years later at a night market halfway around the world, the smell and its remembered associated taste could still make me shudder and my stomach flip-flop.

Cheese tonkatsu poutine: pork patty stuffed with cheese, breaded, and deep fried, served on a bed of french fries and green onions. A fan of anything stuffed with cheese, I was hyped to try this. Pro tip: find somewhere to sit, dump out that searing lake of cheese onto the fries and then stuff those cheesy fries back into the empty meat shell. You’re welcome.

On hot, sticky days together in Da’an Forest Park, we’d occasionally visit a shaved ice vendor who would load up a mountain of fluffy shaved ice with rivers of condensed milk and piles of chopped fruit, red beans, and tofu pudding. My favorite was ripe, fragrant mango. This drink from icy bar with its bubbles and jellies was refreshing and evoked a similar experience.

What are the six extra Ds beyond the mundanity of the mere three that people usually experience? Best guess: danger, dinosaurs, divestment from money…disappointment? That’s still two entire Ds unaccounted for. I’m going to venture that the disappointment is deep and all of these dimensions combined with a bunch of deep fried whatever could conceivably cause dry heaves. Disgorgement: that’s the word I’m looking for.

 

There’s so much food at the night market that everyone found something appealing, whether that was a chicken cutlet the size of a car tire or fish shaped pancake stuffed with custard. I got to share dragon beard candy with almost everyone, a pillow of fluffy strands of sugar around a core of chopped sweet peanut, black sesame, and coconut, dusted with more sugar that puffs around your mouth like smoke when eaten, the strands clinging to your face in a beard of sugar. Laborious to make with a freshness window of less than ten minutes, it’s very sweet and the texture is a bit like biting into a cotton ball. A nostalgic cotton ball. 

We found a table and wrapped our evening with gelato, flavors like tangy White Rabbit (Chinese milk candy), punchy yuzu, and nutty, roasty black sesame eddying into the bottom of our cups. In sharing this experience with our friends, Beth felt more present in my life than she has since her death. It didn’t lessen the ache but reminded me why I ache, why I loved her and love her still. Beth lives in the past now. I know where to find her.

 

 

 

 

*The very last place I’m going to put something sketchy is directly on my eyeball, thank you very much.

**I don’t know how they haven’t taken off in the USA yet but they’re like snapchat filters and stickers rolled into one and they can only have gotten better in the last twenty years.