I was wanting to mail a letter to our friends back in the US, but I had a problem. I had just been to the front counter at the post office and told the postal worker my plans. She pointed over my shoulder and said something about “over there.” I turned around, trying to act as if I knew what she’d said. (I’d only been in Taipei a few weeks, and the only thing I understood clearly was her pointing.)
Behind me, against the wall, was a table with a couple bowls of what looked like wall-paper paste, with a small brush in each one. They were for sealing envelopes, since the envelope flaps in Taiwan—and I assume, most of Asia—don’t have adhesive on them. I’ve been told this is because in the high humidity, the envelopes would glue themselves shut while waiting to be used. That explanation sounds perfectly plausible to me.
Behind the paste were two slots in the table. Each had a sign with a few Chinese characters on it. I went to the table and pretended to sort my mail for a while, pondering what I should do. What did the signs say? “Local Mail”? “Air Mail”? But the only time I’d ever seen slots like those were in the tables at the bank where you can fill out deposit slips—you know, the slots for throwing away your trash. So maybe the signs said, “Place Wastepaper Here,” and “Not for Mail.”
Beside the table was the door. Maybe the postal worker had pointed outside—to some mailboxes I hadn’t seen.
I made my decision, tossing my letter into one of the slots. I didn’t look back. I didn’t want to see the lady at the counter shaking her head at me. Instead, I hurried home and emailed our friends: “Let me know if you get a letter from us. Either I mailed one to you or just threw it away.”
A week later, they wrote back and said it had arrived. Sometimes, in spite of myself, I got things right.
It took me quite a while to get over my nervousness going to the post office. For expats, it can be a pretty scary place—in large part because there’s so much at stake. You’re often sending important documents or valuable parcels (like hand-drawn pictures to Grandma and Grandpa). And once you stick on the postage and drop them in the mailbox, there’s no do over.
Lick at Your Own Risk
Not long ago, here in the safety of the US, I was helping a friend from Asia prepare some papers for mailing. I handed him the envelope, and seeing that there wasn’t any paste available, he tried to peel the backing off the self-stick flap. The trouble was, the flap wasn’t peel-and-seal. When he realized he needed to lick it, he laughed and said he’d heard about people putting poison on the adhesive. I told him that’s never happened, because . . . uh . . . that’s never happened . . . right?
Well, I did some research, and I’m sticking by my assertion, but it seems that my friend is more up on American pop-culture than I am. How about you?
First, there’s this cautionary tale that began circulating by email in 1999:
Whenever you go to an automatic teller machine to make deposits, make sure you don’t lick the deposit envelopes. A customer died after licking an envelope at a teller machine at Yonge & Eglinton. According to the police, Dr. Elliot at the Women’s college hospital found traces of cyanide in the lady’s mouth and digestive system and police traced the fatal poison to the glue on the envelope she deposited that day. They then did an inspection of other envelopes from other teller machines in the area and found six more. The glue is described as colourless and odourless. They suspect some sickco is targeting this particular bank and has been putting the envelopes beside machines at different locations. A spokesperson from the bank said their hands are tied unless they take away the deposit function from all machines. So watch out, and please forward this message to the people you care about . . . Thanks
Completely false, says the urban-legend site Snopes.com. But when has that ever stopped an internet fable from gaining traction?
Snopes also tackled another email that made its debut in 2000. It’s about poor lady number two falling victim to the dangers of envelope glue:
This lady was working in a post office in California, one day she licked the envelopes and postage stamps instead of using a sponge.
That very day the lady cut her tongue on the envelope. A week later, she noticed an abnormal swelling of her tongue. She went to the doctor, and they found nothing wrong. Her tongue was not sore or anything. A couple of days later, her tongue started to swell more, and it began to get really sore, so sore, that she could not eat. She went back to the hospital, and demanded something be done. The doctor, took an x-ray of her tongue, and noticed a lump. He prepared her for minor surgery.
When the doctor cut her tongue open, a live roach crawled out. There were roach eggs on the seal of the envelope. The egg was able to hatch inside of her tongue, because of her saliva. It was warm and moist. . . .
This is a true story. . . . Pass it on.
Actually not true, but extra points for the graphic detail.
The Website TV Tropes reports that over the years, the poison-envelope theme has occurred in several TV crime shows. But the most famous example was part of the comedy Seinfeld, when George’s fiancée died after licking the toxic adhesive on some 200 cheap wedding invitations.
So no wonder my friend didn’t want to lick the envelope. Oh, sure, I could tell him his fears are based on urban legends, ridiculous story lines, and misguided fear. I could tell him that expats are especially susceptible to rumors and fantastic stories. But still . . . there was Mr. Fechheimer, mentioned in the 1895 New York Times:
S. Fechheimer, formerly a merchant of New-York, died here yesterday from blood poisoning as a result of cutting his tongue while licking an envelope. He was a rich man until a few years ago, when the panic came and brought ruin. He was the senior member of the firm of Fechheimer, Rau & Co., New-York shirt manufacturers.
So please be careful. And the next time you have to mail a letter, you might want to use a sponge.
(Barbara Mikkelson, “Dial ATM for Murder,” Snopes.com, September 2, 2006; Barbara Mikkelson, “Cockroach Eggs,” Snopes.com, January 22, 2014; “Finger-Licking Poison,” TV Tropes; “Poisoned by Licking an Envelope,” The New York Times, May 4, 1895)