In 2003, I was bunged up in a hospital bed with a ventilator in my throat. Two surgeries and a coma later, I’d find out that a scooter accident gave me an unbuckled jaw, a pierced ear drum and eventually a punctured lung from the intubations in my nose and mouth. Thankfully, after the gore was over, I got introduced to a kind of routine. Every morning at 4am, beneath the blaring fluorescent lights and amidst the cries of dying patients' loved ones all around, a junior RA would start the day at ICU with his blood rounds, beginning with me. My mom used to say you get used to anything, and sure enough, I’d come to expect and enjoy the arrival of this young doctor, who’d come bedside, gently swearing about the unsociable hour of work and protesting about whatever else was going on in his life. Halfway into my month-long stay and still under heavy sedation, I’d listen to the young doctor, to what sounded like such an enviable normal life in the real world outside, and I’d let these stories infuse with mine, mixing them into my drugged head and into my artificially ventilated body, so I could hear a cocktail of fantastical stories.
At the time, I had several passports and one of them was my birth country’s – Japan – which was and is still illegal given Japan only allows single citizenship. In one of my deluded mashups with the doctor, I’m at customs where the officer is handing me a scroll with an ancient Chinese scripture. He says I must read it to gain entry into Japan, and I do as requested, reading the text which is strangely identical to the reading we had in our third year Mandarin Chinese class (so not ancient at all, actually). But now the officer is angry and he changes the requirement to something that has to do with my lung. I become confused, not because of the odd requirement but because the Japanese officer is speaking English, and with a very distinguishable Scottish accent.
Slowly I become aware that it’s the RA who is talking and not the officer. He’s the one who is saying something about lungs but he is also talking about breaking up with his American girlfriend, from which he abruptly turns to talking about haggis, the Scottish stuffing-like savory pudding that contains sheep pluck, the butcher’s leftover stuff of heart, liver and lungs mixed together with onions, suet and seasoned oatmeal. I wonder if this is my drugged brain working hard to connect the accent I hear to something I know is Scottish – haggis – and I let myself struggle to make some sense of the story before I finally give up. Like all my delusions from that time in the ICU, that story stayed in a cursed jumble until yesterday, almost twenty years after the accident, when I had an epiphany.
As next Tuesday, the 25th of January is Burns Night here in the UK, I was going to write something about the Scottish bard and lyricist Robert Burns. Burns is the author of famous Auld Lang Syne and the poet who inspired the title of John Steinbeck’s novella, Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck took his title from a line in Burns’ poem, To A Mouse, which he wrote after accidentally ploughing into a mouse’s nest. But that’s a sidetrack, sorry, this is my normal busy brain – normal in the sense of habitual, not normal in the sense of in relation to others.
Two years later in 1787, Burns also wrote the poem, Address to the Haggis, which is often recited on Burns Night before the savory pudding is consumed as a part of a Burns supper. On reading the poem and the circumstances under which the poem came to be recited, I came across the trivia that haggis is banned in the United States because it contains sheep lung. (Flash disgusting warning: It’s supposedly banned because sheep lung can contain fluids like phlegm and stomach acid that could have entered the lungs at slaughter). Willing my face out of its grimace (you don’t actually get used to everything) I found myself thinking back to the RA’s story. Maybe what he was saying was that he was glad he broke up with someone from a country that didn’t eat the Scottish national dish, haggis? Or, was it that he understood why she broke up with him?
Welcoming the interpretations of other more brilliant minds, in the meantime, I leave you with Burns’ delightful ode to the Scottish treasure, haggis, read best of course in Lowland Scotts or Lallans (left). Failing that you could try reading the English translation (right) as Shrek, voiced by the Canadian actor, Mike Myers. And if that’s not enough, take a look at David Mach’s Flying Haggis, a collage of images from Burns suppers collected by the Robert Burns Studies Centre at the University of Glasgow.
Happy Burns Night!
Then, horn for horn, they stretch an strive: Deil tak the hindmaist, on they drive, Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve Are bent like drums; Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive, 'Bethankit' hums.
Then spoon for spoon They stretch and strive: Devil take the last man, on they drive, Until all their well swollen bellies Are bent like drums; Then, the old gent most likely to burp, 'Be thanked' mumbles.
But take note of the strong haggis fed Scot, The trembling earth resounds his tread, Clasped in his large fist a blade, He'll make it whistle; And legs and arms and heads he will cut off, Like the tops of thistles.