Last weekend I survived a bit of an ordeal. I’d been invited to an academic event hosted and attended by various people I’ve admired from afar and never met before – the kind of people I quoted in my dissertation, whose plays I studied at university, and who might be the help and inspiration I need in my next life step.
After the conference there were refreshments, followed by a meal at a Vietnamese place just around the corner. I was sitting next to my dissertation tutor’s awesome Korean girlfriend, on a table with two professors of Indian dance and two experts in Beijing opera when…
The waitress spilled boiling noodle soup all over me.
Rather than sit and socialise with these inspiring people, I sat on the toilet seat in the ladies’ loo with my left wrist under the cold tap whilst dabbing my hot, wet jeans with napkins and assuring the waitress that vaseline was not the thing for burns. I found it humiliating and really frustrating. I’d already noticed I was the youngest, least established person there (with the most to learn), and this accidental seclusion made me feel like the punished child left out of the grown-ups’ conversation.
In those lonely twenty minutes, I got thinking back to similar ordeals. I have been particularly unlucky with hot things and my extremities.
At age 19 in Kanoni, a small village in central Uganda, I splashed boiling oil across my right foot while making Chapatis. I had nothing in my first aid kit for burns. There was no running water, so I put my foot in a small bowl of warm dirty water to cool it down. Then, as advised by my host family, I put water and sugar on it. That didn’t work. I could feel it burning all night long. The burns went a horrible colour but I was thankful I hadn’t broken the skin. A week later it looked like this, but I don’t have a scar:
Two and a half years later, age 22, I took some soup out of the dorm microwave with my left hand. The packaging was much like a yoghurt pot, flimsy with the heat. I was hungover and clearly squeezed it inadvertently. I had been living in Seoul, South Korea for a little over 2 weeks and, once again, had no burn treatment in my first aid kit. Despite speaking virtually no Korean (I had only just mastered writing my first name), I managed to go to a Korean doctor, who dressed the wound, gave me pills and helped me look after it properly (and also told me it was a second degree burn). You don’t want to see what it looked like (it was gross), but the bandage I had to wear for 2 weeks might give an idea of how serious it was.
Nonetheless, I got the hell on with life and had fun!
Returning to the table after a long absence, I discovered that my new Korean friend had gone and bought me a tube of aloe vera (cue parrot voice: ‘Allo Vera!’) and that everyone was sympathetic, concerned for me and impressed by my resilience. I was reinvigorated. I knew I’d dealt with harder situations, laughed it off and assured them all I was ok.
Laugh through the pain and you can survive anything.
The restaurant paid for the aloe vera, didn’t charge me for my meal and took 10% off the bill. The Beijing opera experts joked I’d ‘taken one for the team‘; and my mentor and his girlfriend expressed their concern several times. The two Indian women seemed to have a newfound respect for me, particularly once I’d told them that I hadn’t needed to call my Mother, but had just known that aloe was the best thing for burns. Speaking to my Pa later on, he said: ‘Well, at least they’ll remember you’.
I healed fast – both my skin and my confidence.
Pushing through the crisis moment (and the lasting pain) reminded me that I’ve got a serious ability to cope with any situation I find myself in (and see the silver lining). Noticing little character traits in yourself is sometimes harder than you might imagine. I wouldn’t recommend causing yourself pain to test who you are, but self-knowledge can be hidden in the least likely of places!
(Originally published on Aliljoy.com on 26 May 2014.)