Jan 31, 2014

The Decision to Come Home for Chinese New Year

Some of the disadvantages working overseas, aside from earning a foreign currency and able to stand as a bystander when our comedian government does something stupid, is having to play the "home / no home" game during Chinese New Year. Being in Taiwan, Chinese New Year is the pinnacle of peak travel season which means air tickets are sold almost twice their original price. As students with a fixed semester schedule, you purchase your flight tickets well in advance while avoiding the hot dates. However, after starting work, applying a day off during Chinese New Year is like trying to give birth to an elephant with a human pelvis - a stand-in must be found to relief your duties, lots of negotiation on the on call schedules, and train tickets typically sold out within seconds must be acquired by whatever means. Any lapse of this chain of events would mean spending Chinese New Year alone overseas.
The on call schedule of our hospital is fixed only a month in advance. So by December I was calling my January and February departments for details which were still sketchy. I literally had to hold them at gunpoint for them to give me leave. We had mutually respectful discussions and I was rather disappointed to find our Chinese New Year leave would only be 4 days in total. Anyhow, anticipating the short break due to lack of residents, I deliberated on whether or not to come home for Chinese New Year.
As my travel agent gleefully typed into her computer unleashing a record high price tag of NT$ 22000 round trip from Taipei to Penang (with a transit), my senior at the ED repeatedly reminded me he gets paid NT$ 20000 per 12-hour session of emergency duty at a rural community hospital. I had numerous sleepless nights and asked around on what will my first Chinese New Year abroad be like.
Gradually the department of obstetrics and gynaecology, where I will be rotating in January, completed our duty schedule. They did a good job avoiding all my blackout dates but I learned I will be on call the night before my intended flight. This means I will be working until 8 am while my flight departs at 12 noon at Taoyuan International Airport, if I am flying Cathay Pacific, the cheaper option.
Worried that I might not make the flight (Hualien to Taipei is 2 hours by train; Taipei to Taoyuan International Airport is another 50 mins by bus), I even tried Malaysia Airlines which happily sold out its economy class a month in advance. I decided to treat myself to business to be told the entire price would be NT$ 26000, enough to feed my family of 4 for a month.


My travel agent, the always aggressive Ms. Tsai must've checked the empty slots until even the computer hates her. Over the course of 3 weeks we managed to downgrade our fare class to around NT$ 20000. She must also hate me because I often Line her in the middle of the night to ask her to check if there's any cheaper seats. One fine day she finally broke and screamed at me to pay up before she goes to psychiatry. The final price is NT$19900 with a PEN-HKG sector in premium economy. I can't remember it was because economy was sold out (more likely), or there was only a slight price difference for a wider seat and more privacy.
Next comes applying for leave during a period when the hospital is most stretched out of human resource. For this I decided to employ a tactic from Sun Tzu's Art of War - distraction and dissemination of attention. I would talk about something happy like our year-end bonus while maliciously slipping in my leave application and needing a stand in. After 4 to 5 trials and employing some hypnotic skills along the way, my partner finally agreed to stand in for 3 days while I'm off making my leave up to 6.5 days in total including traveling.
If I leave Hualien after call duty at 8, I will be in peril of not boarding my flight home given the short margin of error. Arriving in Taipei at 10 and taking the bus will probably see me at the airport at around 11:20 for a 12:05 flight which is cutting it very close for an international flight. I finally decided to take the earliest train out of Hualien which is 6 am. The 2 hours of call duty I owe my friends to cover up for me as evidenced here.

On call personnel: Intern Dr. Huang with PGY Dr. Sim. Please call PGY Dr. Wang or Dr. Guo after 5:30

After a monthlong battle for tickets, leave, and stand ins with an array of seditious acts, lies, and drama worthy of an Academy award, I finally board the very chaotic flight home to Penang as one-third of the world's population scramble to be home for reunion dinner. I must say it is worth it to be home for the festive season, no matter the price.
Happy Chinese New Year to all!

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