Friday, October 19, 2012

50… 50, With the Glass Half Full




I celebrated my fiftieth birthday the other day; my 3rd birthday celebration in Wuhan. Zhanny and Dash, all that is left of the original Cookie Cutter girls and a part of what I consider my Chinese family celebrated with me on the eve of ‘my day’. We ate ‘jiao zi (dumplings) for good luck, and then they surprised me with a small cake that we shared in the park by my former apartment, at the very same low table where we ate my first ever Chinese birthday cake (and got into a cake war). See the ‘Happy Birthday to Me!’ entry, posted way back in September 2010 for details of this unusual Chinese custom. 

My Sophomore group of students that I had last year as Freshmen were invited over to watch The Notebook the evening of my actual birthday. Titanic has just re-released over here and all the girls are ga-ga for the romance of it. They don’t know anything. In my opinion, The Notebook is far more romantic than Titanic ever thought of being. What is your take on the subject?

They had never seen The Notebook and were suitably impressed. Even the guys. Of course, I had to fast forward through the two sex scenes, relatively tame as they are.

I’ve learned in my tenure here that it is tradition to host a birthday party for yourself. When first acquainted with this practice it seemed to me terribly arrogant to throw oneself a birthday party, and in a sense it still does. However, the more I study and learn and become a part of Chinese culture and society the more I understand it. Throwing oneself a birthday party implies you want to share your day with your friends. It is kind of like a wedding: you want the people most special in your life to be with you on that momentous occasion. Of course it has more import in China than that same situation does in the West. In China the newlyweds (and birthday girls/boys) serve their guests, whereas in the west, specifically in America the newlyweds (and birthday girls/boys) are the ones being served.

I have no wedding plans at all, so my half-century birthday will have to serve as my momentous occasion. It is quite a milestone, isn’t it? 

Too bad I had to celebrate hatted and plastered. My birthday falling on Friday of the week I took my spill (pardon the pun), I still had stitches in my head, facial swelling and the cast on my arm. None of that kept me from preparing a substantial amount of food: pork and lotus root soup, meatballs in barbecue sauce and chicken in a type of spicy Alfredo sauce of my own creation. The coffee table was liberally covered with individually packed snacks as well as large bowls of chips and other munchies. All of it got gobbled up, with the exception of 5 snack packs. That is another phenomenon I am by now well acquainted with: these kids are eating machines! Even if they come over having just finished their dinner they will eat as much as is served and then some.

Now I have attained an age that I had previously thought as a line of demarcation between living and being set out on an ice floe to await my sure demise, as per Eskimo lore. Do I feel any closer to expiring than I did last year or the year before?

In an email exchange with my dear friend and constant correspondent Kevin I tapped out my true feeling.

l consider myself charging into the years ahead - however many more years l'm granted - with wild exuberance, like a formerly confined creature finally set free. lmagine a mustang – the 4-legged kind: hooves pounding, mane flowing, muscles rippling beneath its shiny pelt as it gallops across a vast, open, uncharted plain. That is how l see myself, and how l strive to live: with zest, elan, whole-heartedly and passion driven.

I honestly do not know where these words came from. The best explanation I can give is that they sprang from the very depths of my soul. Typing one-handed, my right fingers flew across the keyboard with virtually no conscious awareness of what I was writing. As though coming out of a trance, I shook myself, got a glass of tea and returned to read over what I had written. I was surprised, both at the poetry and the rightness of my words. Kevin gave me permission to reprint what I had written exclusively to him, provided I shared the credit.

Thank you Kevin, for provoking these thoughts and for your blessing in reprinting, as well as for your birthday wishes.

Obviously I feel like I am poised at the very brink of the beginning of my existence. None of us knows how much time we are granted, and we are all gifted with each day: a new chance to learn, to love and to live.

What if we did know? What if, while I was having my head MRI’ed, the doctors had found an inoperable growth and gave me only weeks to live?

That idea ties in with a question my son had asked me a few years back, before I set off on my China adventure: what is on my bucket list?

At that time I did not have a bucket list, at least not a consciously developed, concisely formulated one. What makes me so introspective now?

My students. One of the projects I dreamed up for my students this year is for them to imagine they only have 2 weeks to live. What would they do? Where would they go? I plan on making it the topic of their mid-term exam: give a 2-minute speech about the last 2 weeks of your life.

It is always interesting to hear what these kids think and what their priorities are. I’ll bet most will say “I will spend it with my family” but some will come up with imaginative projects like mountain climbing, or visiting the country of their dreams (provided it is not China). If they cannot envision themselves leaving China, most likely they will intone something to the effect of visiting someplace in China, probably with their family.

There are plenty of places I still want to go, in and out of China. But if I had to pick a place I’d like to visit as a destination fit for a bucket list it would be Tristan da Cunha.           

I first learned of this collection of 3 tiny islands smack in between the coasts of Africa and South America from Fletcher Knebel’s story Vanished. It is a tale of world leaders hatching a plan for peace. Of course, all great things cost some sort of sacrifice and most of the story dealt with the family of the American President’s envoy to that meeting: how were his wife and daughter managing the disappearance? How did their story unfold? Because that representative is so well known the media made the most of his disappearance. As naturally as had the events actually unfolded, the newscasters took the theme into improbable realms: He has committed a crime, he is homosexual and gone on a tryst, a terrorist faction kidnapped him…

We can see from this dated tale that the media has not changed very much over time.

I’d like to visit Tristan Da Cunha for its isolation, for its beauty and to be a part of a civilization that boasts a mere 275 people. They have no Internet and virtually no connection to the outside world. They are a completely self-contained society. Only one island is inhabited and at that, only partially. There is only one way to get there: by sea. So brutal is the weather and so treacherous are the seas that the island’s only port is accessible about four months out of the year. I relish the challenge of even getting there.

Why the focus on a bucket list when obviously I have no abnormal growth threatening my life and my subconscious dictated words indicative of the idea that I feel I am at the start of my existence?

It is not the list I’m focusing on rather than the contents. Since I learned that my students, by nature and by nurture only envision probabilities without embracing possibilities, I have made it my mission to expand their horizons. Maybe they’ve never heard of Tristan da Cunha. Maybe they have but never envisioned themselves going there.

With a half century of living behind me and, it seems, many more years to come, I’d like to open their minds, hearts and eyes to a whole different world: the world of possibility.

Now there’s a goal worthy of a bucket list.

The Fall’s Fallout




I wanted to get all this in last post but, as always, it ran rather long. So I start a new post, mercifully short.

The most obvious benefit of this accident of mine is firsthand knowledge of China’s heath care systems. Paying in advance for treatments, patients being custodians of their own medical records, affordable and expedient care are all things I experienced firsthand and can now report on with authority.

The second miracle: I did not ruin my support hose. Being as I spend my Tuesday mornings standing on concrete and my classrooms are on the 4th floor support hose are essential, otherwise my feet and legs are too achy to do anything else that day. The hose are a valuable commodity made more so because they are unavailable over here. I brought 5 pair while stateside last time and I have to be very careful with them lest I ruin them. Much to my surprise, even though I suffered scrapes on both knees and substantial bruising my hose did not run.  Thus I am comfortable endorsing L’eggs Active Support hose for anyone who does a lot of walking or standing.

Beyond that, what good was this accident?

It seems the Chinese only go to the doctor if they have a specific complaint. Preventive care is apparently unknown here. If I wanted a well-woman exam or a stress test on my heart, or any of the tests doctors in America recommend when a patient turns fifty I would either have to request it or go to America to have it done. Therefore I’ve not had a checkup in 2 years. With the terrible way I’ve been feeling virtually since I got here going on 3 years ago, you might understand that I had some serious doubts about my health.

As a result of this accident I now know:

·         I have strong bones. Not once in all of my falls have I broken anything, including hitting my head on a piece of angle iron. X-rays show good bone density.
·         I do not have a brain tumor. Two MRIs are proof of that. 
·         I do not suffer from diabetes. My wounded head healed quickly and the bruises disappeared within a week. One symptom of diabetes is slow healing of scrapes, bruises or serious wounds.
·         I do not have heart problems. During all of these procedures not once did any doctor express concern over high blood pressure or irregular heart activity. Indeed the readings were well within the norm. 
·         I do not have any serious or life threatening diseases, including any blood cancers.

In trying to figure out what was wrong with me during this past year I have speculated on all of the above listed health concerns. High blood pressure, a brain tumor and diabetes could have been causing the lingering dizziness and outright dizzy spells I’ve been hiding from everyone. They could also explain why I was so fatigued.

Diabetes and heart disease could also account for the numbness in my hands and feet. Not a constant numbness, just enough of one to be scary.  

Besides that…

I’ve long despaired over my thinning hair. I do believe another winter here, with the air as dry as it is will result in the rest of my hair falling out. With my head partially shaved I now have an excuse to wear a hat all the time… but why stop there? Remember I had bought a wig last time I was in the states? It must have been serendipity again.

I had no use for the wig till now. Now that I am partially bald and especially because I’m letting my gray grow out I now have an excuse to wear my wig all the time. How nice it is to have a glorious head of hair, even if it is fake! And, because circumstances demand I wear a hat anyway, nobody is any wiser to my vain wig deception. An added bonus is that the wig and hat are keeping my head nice and warm as the weather dips down into the 50 degree Fahrenheit range overnight. 

My hair is growing back where Doc shaved my head to stitch me up. It feels weird having stubble. I will wait till the stubble grows to a respectable length and then cut the rest of my hair to match. It will be a long process.

I have decided that I will no longer take chances with Benadryl. During that first long night in the ‘injection chair’ I conceded that I have allergies and will most likely be plagued by them for the rest of my time here, if not the rest of my life. I now take Benadryl every 4 hours whether I have allergy symptoms or not.

As a result I have come to feel better than I have since I’ve moved here 3 years ago. I sleep undisturbed through the night. I breathe with no wheezing or gasping, and there is no tightness in my chest. My energy levels are back to normal and with that my zest for adventure and desire for activity.

Most importantly, that which has been affecting my balance has been reversed. The pressure on my ears, at one time so strong it caused near deafness is now in proper ratio. My balance is still not completely restored but I’ve not had a dizzy spell or lost my balance since I started my rigorous allergy regimen. Of course, if I don’t take my medicine on schedule I feel it, almost immediately. The first symptom is increasing  pressure in my ears.

Friends, it feels wonderful to get out of bed and not have to hold on to the walls for my first few steps of the day. It is amazing that I can do squats again and get off the couch without having to hold on to something. I can now go out walking with full confidence that I will not trip or fall. Or that a trip does not guarantee a fall.

I feel like I am back to my old self. What a great return, and just in time for my half-century celebration!

I Had to Have an Injection





The Chinese are staunch believers in the benefits of intravenous medicine. It appears there is no ailment or discomfort that cannot be alleviated by ‘having an injection’. I wonder how that ties in with the whole ‘drink more hot water’ philosophy.

Nearly from the first moment I arrived in China I have heard the dreaded phrase: ‘I had to have an injection.’ It is generally uttered with proper gravity, reflecting the seriousness of the occasion. A long time ago Carrie Ann had warned me how Chinese doctors love prescribing ‘injections’. At the time I believed she meant giving shots of medication. Even her ominous tone convinced me I did not want any part of ‘injecting’. In my mind’s eye I’m picturing vicarious doctors and venomous nurses, chasing their charges around with loaded needles, all set to give injections.

Since those early days, Martin, Claire, Winnie, Rebecca and even Sam’s baby girl Erica had to ‘have an injection’. Truth to tell I’ve long wanted to write an entry devoted to the ‘injection’ phenomenon because that intonation is so profoundly uttered but once again something stayed my hand. Now I have a good reason to write that entry.   

I am now in the aforementioned Transfusion Room, ready for my first experience with ‘getting an injection’. Before I could get my actual IV drip started I had to have a TB tine test. Small stick to the wrist; wait fifteen minutes. No reaction? Good. And then I had to have another test, one I presume for allergies. Another stick to the wrist, close to the TB stick. Wait another fifteen minutes. No reaction? Good. Let’s have a shot of who knows what to the butt (done in full view, behind the low counter) and then get that IV prepped and started.

The nurses in the Transfusion Room are Masters of Injecting. Whether it is because they use ‘butterfly needles’ – tiny needles designed for children’s veins, or because they stick people twelve hours a day, six days a week and have been doing so for as long as they have been working there, I do believe these competent professionals could take first place in any ‘sticking needles in hands’competition. After receiving ‘injections’ for three consecutive days in the same hand, I did not even have a bruise to show for it.

The good news is those blue chairs in the Transfusion Room are as comfortable as they look. They may just be the most comfortable chairs I’ve sat in since moving to China. The bad news is that I had to occupy one for over two hours. We’d already been at the hospital for close to four hours. Now we had to endure the agony of just sitting while some unspecified fluid flowed into my veins. All three of my companions insisted on staying by my side in spite of the late hour and their early schedules the next day. They sat triangulated around me as though in protection, and dozed.

While they’re catching some shuteye, I’ll tell you about my elbow. After attending to my head the doctor directed us to the next stage of my treatment: injection. Before we left I mentioned my elbow that, in the meantime had grown a substantial knot. I knew it was not broken, nor was a bone chipped  - no pain and full mobility, but the doc insisted on X-rays. Another prescription form, another cashier stamp and off we go, again to Radiology, this time for pictures of my elbow.

Again no waiting. This tech was none too gentle about positioning me. I do aver that my elbow did not hurt… as long as no one palpated it or forced my arm into unconventional poses. Fortunately I am a good patient and did not scream or cry out when he manipulated me into position. Ten minutes later we returned to the emergency room. This time it was Sam who bullied his way to the doctor’s desk, proffering the film. Doc concluded the results were inconclusive but wanted my arm in a cast and an MRI done the next day, just in case.    

Now in orthopedics, ready for a partial cast to immobilize my arm. First the docs needed to treat a little girl. I don’t know what was wrong with her because she kicked her legs vigorously and her arms seemed to move just fine. Once they took her into the treatment room she howled bloody murder. It broke my heart.

While we were waiting a woman rushed into the office, her shirtless son following a few steps behind. He had dislocated his shoulder. His was a simple procedure; no cast required. Still, I did not want to be in the room when they popped his shoulder back into place. It only takes a second but causes a monstrous bolt of pain. I didn’t want to see and hear that young man shriek when the doc tugged on his arm.

Now it is my turn. In China they still use the old fashioned plaster cast. Fortunately I did not have to have a standard cast totally enclosing my arm, just one that would keep my elbow at 90 degrees. Doc soaked the rolled plaster material and then molded it to fit. He then wrapped enough linen gauze around it to make a mummy proud.

Fast forward back to the Transfusion Room where my companions are snoozing. A pesky fly keeps buzzing around my head, no doubt attracted to the smell of fresh blood just under the gauze. Shooing it away is nearly impossible, seeing as one arm is half encased in plaster and the other currently hosts an IV line. Sam draped a tissue over my head in an attempt to discourage the flies. There I sit: exhausted, bloodied, plastered, stitched and now adorned as though I belong to some weird cult that worships tissue paper. Someone! PLEASE drop the curtain on this spectacle I’ve become!

The last of my IV solution is dripping into the metering device; soon we’ll get to go home. ‘Soon’ is a relative term of course. It was now nearing 3AM. We’d been there since about 10:00 the night before.

After being finally released Sam staggered home. He lives only 5 minutes away. The girls and I took a taxi back to school, the buses having long stopped running. On the way home Vanessa and I made plans to come back the next day – well, later that day for my ‘injection’, and also for a better evaluation of my elbow film.    

In all we went to the hospital 3 days in a row.

I didn’t know my head sported a total of twelve stitches till I had to have the dressing changed, two days later. “Hah!” I thought to myself. “I took a dozen stitches to the head with no pain killer and didn’t utter a single whimper. Rambo has nothing on me!”

Speaking of whimpering…

It seems that, in China the louder one is the more profound the need or feeling. Take sneezing, for example. In America one tries for a discreet ‘at-choo’ into a tissue, behind a hand or into the crook of one’s elbow. In China nothing short of an all-out bellow signifies health and the expulsion of whatever had plagued the sneezer. Mouths and noses are not covered but it is common practice for the sneezer to turn his/her head away. At least there is that.

 Same thing with vocal expressions of pain. Presumably the louder and more frantic the shrieks the more severe the injury. I learned of this custom on my second visit to the hospital. Doc had to change the dressing on my head. Vanessa bullied her way back in front of the Emergency Room doc’s desk. He told her to escort me back into the same room I had visited two nights ago with the gurney and the soiled hygienic pads.

Meanwhile, Emergency Room Doc #2 was escorting a boy of about 10 years into that same room. The boy seemed fine: ambulant, no visible blood or bone, well fed, judging by his girth. Once in that room he started: “OH NO!!! SOS!!! PLEASE SAVE ME!!! THEY’RE KILLING ME!!! MOM!!! DAD!!! MAKE THEM STOP!!!” It was as though someone had flipped a switch on inside this child, who was so perfectly calm in the antechamber. We were all doing our best to not laugh but it was hard not to, so comical were his pleas.

Again, as though a switch were thrown the boy shut up when I entered the room. Remember: there is no privacy so he and I were attended to in the same small room, within a meter of each other. I had a hat on my head and a jacket covering my arm when I walked in, so that I didn’t appear injured at all. When the boy saw my head, especially after the doc removed the gauze and cleaned my stitches, he appeared struck dumb and he didn’t howl anymore for the duration of his treatment.

In all, this episode cost me 3 trips to the hospital, 3 two-hour stints in the IV room, 2 sets of MRI and one set of X-rays, evaluations by ER docs, an Orthopedic specialist and a tech to set my arm, the services of Radiology and, of course those expert nurses in the Transfusion Room. What was my cost in actual currency? 

How much would all this cost in the States? Tens of thousands of dollars, probably.

I hope this does not cause you to fall down, strike your head against a sharp object and bruise your elbow.

My total cost was…

2,700Yuan. The school absorbed only 1,000Yuan being as I was not injured on campus, making my out of pocket cost only 1,700Yuan.

That would be about $300 to have my head examined and get plastered. I couldn’t believe it.   



Sunday, October 14, 2012

Wailing and Rending, as Though Death Had Visited




“You’re bleeding!” Summer wailed.

“Its OK, Sweetie” I tried to reassure her. “Head bumps normally bleed a lot because the skin on your head is so thin.”

She was inconsolable. She took personal responsibility for the flow of blood I now acknowledged was running down my face.

“I didn’t take good care of you! I didn’t watch out for you! It is all my fault!”

Now I am part amused and part irritated. I’ve lived nearly a half century without being looked after, especially by a young girl. I go out all the time on my own. This could have happened on any of my frequent outings and, truth to tell, with the crappy way I’d been feeling for so long I marveled that it hadn’t happened before now. Who was she to claim responsibility for my injury?

I felt no pain, just that of my heart for this poor young thing taking blame for my clumsiness. I did my best to reassure her, still not knowing the extent of the damage I’d done to myself. Meanwhile Vanessa is speed dialing Sam to find out what to do.

“Take her to the hospital” he instructs, “I’ll meet you there.”

Vanessa flags down the first passing vehicle, a delivery van. She explains to the driver that I am gravely injured, BLEEDING, and they have to get me to the hospital right away. The van driver naturally acquiesces and leans over, opening the passenger door and clearing off the front seat for me. The girls pile in the back. By now I’m a little beyond irritated. Why all the fuss over a simple fall and a little blood?

What is beyond irritated?

I tried to message Sam that I am perfectly fine and in no need of emergency medical services, but I could not text and hold a wad of tissue on my head at the same time. By the time I got most of the message typed out we were already at the hospital. The still weeping Summer shepherded me on with an arm around my waist and another on my increasingly painful elbow while Vanessa, cool and level-headed, led the way.

It being late in the evening the hospital lobby was deserted. The emergency room was a different proposition altogether.

Here, Ladies and Gentlemen I break narrative to inform you that I will relate this experience from 2 perspectives: factual and impressions. Or, if you prefer: color and play by play.

Here is my impression of the emergency room: it is a madhouse. There is no decorum, no receiving desk, no neatly uniformed nurses demanding forms be filled out and sending patients to discreet triage rooms. No waiting room filled with halt and lame, writhing in various degrees of pain and discomfort, trying to suppress vocal expressions of agony, as you would see in hospitals in America.

There are two doctors, each sitting in a hardback chair at a small wooden desk topped by a computer monitor. The CRT type monitor takes up most of the desk surface, so it is a good thing that the doctor only has a small writing pad to scribble notes on. Supplicants crowd around the doctors, shouting out their needs. The doctors barely look up as they answer question after question being shouted at them. Quite frankly, I don’t know how they function in that environment. 

Apparently the triage method employed in Chinese hospitals is by degrees: visible bone or blood gets first priority. Visible bone covered by unbroken skin comes second. Desperate parents carrying limp children are third and all else can wait, no matter what order patients arrive in.

Slight of build Vanessa bullied her way to the first doctor’s desk. He looked at me and immediately instructed her to escort me into an adjoining room. Summer did the honors, seating me on one of the two doctor’s stools, by a lone gurney with unchanged hygienic soak pads that were stained with blood and iodine solution. After extricating himself from the masses surrounding him the doctor appeared, pawed around on my head, put some gauze in my hand and left again, tersely instructing the girls. Total examination time: about ten seconds. 

Vanessa waited by my side while Summer took care of business. The doctor had written out a proposed treatment plan based on the cursory examination of my head. He handed the slip to Summer who met up with just-arrived Sam. They took off. I had no idea where to.  

Vanessa and I went to the bathroom where, unfortunately, there was a mirror. I got a good look at myself. It was not pretty. The right side of my face was streaked with gore, while my shoulder and the front of my dress were blood spattered. I still had no idea how badly I had hurt my head, but I was getting a better picture.  Just to show I am a good sport I joked that it was too bad it was not Halloween. In the condition I was in I was more than ready to scare anyone. I have to admit: I truly freaked people out, walking around that hospital looking like a hatchet had been recently removed from my head. Vanessa was not amused. I cleaned myself up as best as I could, using tissue paper and water.

Back in the hallway, and immediately back into the treatment room. The doctor glanced at the prescription form he had given over. Again he told the girls to escort me into the treatment room. The pads on the gurney still had not been changed. He instructed me to sit on the stool on the far side of the gurney and prop my chin up with my hands, like a small child praying. He even joked with Sam that I could now say my prayers. Sam duly translated, we had a nice laugh and then he left the room. That is when I learned that my staunch and stalwart friend Sam actually has a very weak stomach and gets nauseous at the sight of blood.                

With no ceremony and no warning, the doctor shaved the affected area on my head. He then proceeded to stitch my head up… with no Novocain. That hurt worse than the original injury. I counted 6 stitches before asking him how many more I could expect. He was delighted, both at the fact that I am an agreeable, cooperative, quiet patient and at the fact that I could speak Chinese. We bantered back and forth and even flirted a little bit while he stitched on. Conversation helped distract me from the agony of getting stitched up with no numbing agent. After he was done he allowed me to clean myself up in the washroom adjacent to the treatment room, and even helped a little.

What were my friends doing while the doc and I flirted? They were at the dispensary, collecting my meds. In China, the doctor writes out a proposed treatment plan on a pad similar to a prescription form. His/her notes include both medicines and treatments. The patient or the patient’s advocate pays for the treatment in advance and offers proof of payment before any treatment is received, even if there is blood or bone showing. So that’s where Summer and Sam took off to while Vanessa and I waited in the hall!

Our next stop is radiology for a CT-scan and an MRI, and then an X-ray for my rapidly swelling elbow. Sam, having taken control of things by now, presented the cashier-stamped prescription form. To my amazement there was no waiting at all. A good thing because there was no waiting room. With minimal pomp the tech arranged me on the table, after encouraging me to remove my earrings. Total time spent in radiology: about fifteen minutes. All pictures taken and films developed. With folders in hand we went back to the emergency doc who was again at the center of a ring of desperate, seeking succor. 

Two major differences between American and Chinese methods of treatment. In China, the patient is the custodian of his/her medical records, and all medicines prescribed in the course of treatment are dispensed to the patient or the patient’s advocate at once: the medications used during emergency treatment and for subsequent treatments. As a result I took home not only my medical records, X-rays and MRI/CAT films but also 2 days worth of IV bags and the solutions that would be added to the saline drips come treatment time.    

I’m bewildered. All of this is so different from what I’m used to. Walking through the mostly deserted hospital I glance through open doors, into rooms that are lighted and occupied. Here we have a room with ten beds, 8 of them occupied. No privacy curtains. The ill supine, moaning and writhing, the hale trying to calm them and hold them down. Medical staff, distinguishable only by their white coats and the fact that they traveled from bed to bed administered to their charges. Here is a room called “Transfusion Room”, with rows of comfortable looking blue chairs, mostly unoccupied at this time of night. I would become intimately familiar with that room. A few patients laying on gurneys in the hallways, seemingly abandoned.

I’ve read about hospitals in the ‘50’s and ’60’s in America, before heathcare became touchy-feely, a matter of discretion and an industry onto itself. From what I remember reading, it was a lot like this hospital.

By now it is nearly midnight. I’d been up since 6AM, because all this happened on Tuesday, the day my lone two classes are scheduled. You get some sleep. I’m going to silently record more impressions and write them down later.

Things I do in the Name of Research




Third year in Wuhan. Third year writing this blog. I’m guessing I’m near my four hundredth entry. Not seeing my blog keeps me in the dark about those kinds of stats. I’ve been given to understand it is still well received. I thank everyone who reads it, reserving my deepest thanks for my regular readers. A large part of my gratitude goes to my still unnamed conspirators who manage my blog page and actually post my ramblings. It has been fun keeping that secret for this long.

As for me, I would write whether I’m being read or not. Not only does this blog serve as a source of entertainment and information for whoever reads it but also as my diary. I can look back over what I wrote last year or when I first came here to recapture that feeling of being lost and isolated. I can marvel at how far I’ve come in assimilating into Chinese society and how I managed to battle and ultimately vanquish that terrible depression that plagued me most of my life… now that I look back on it.

The downside of writing so prolifically and continuously is that, after having been here for all this time, ‘firsts’ are hard to come by. By no means am I saying I am jaded on the experience of living in China or teaching at this university, but there are only so many things that can happen the first time. I’ve said that before. So, this blog has taken a new direction: cultural comparisons.

Hey! I made a funny: “I’m not jaded on living in China.” Teehee!    

All humor aside, now.

In order to make accurate comparisons, less tainted by personal opinion I have to do a substantial amount of research. Mostly into Chinese doings and traditions but sometimes in American iconography and behaviors. Living in America for some 22 years doesn’t make an authority on anything American . Usually my research is conducted impersonally; by means of personal experience objectively critiqued, by interview or whatever I can access and decipher online.

One aspect of Chinese living I’ve not written much about is their medical/healthcare systems. There is only so much one can glean from interviewing – mostly facts and methodology. The language barrier does pose problems, among them being limiting the number of people I can interview. In order to experience first hand how the Chinese handle healthcare, or health scares, I had to undergo treatments myself.

That is the excuse I offer up for why I split my head open like a melon and how my left arm ended up in a cast.

Here is the story. I was out with Summer and Vanessa, two of my former students turned friends. Our plan was to go to Guang Gu, otherwise known as Lu Xiang Square or Optics Valley, that mega-shopping center along the 593 bus route. I’ve written about it a few times before, most notably in the ‘Flouted!’ entry posted November 2010, way back in the dim, dark days when I first got here.   

I wasn’t feeling well. In truth, I haven’t felt wholly ‘me’ for a very long, long time. As I waited for Vanessa and Summer, I looked at the place where I had taken a spill the first time I came here. It occurred to me that, since moving to China I’ve fallen several times, four times severely, mostly from tripping and not being able to recover my balance. Fortunately I’ve not gravely injured myself but I have been contemplating walking with a cane. Again, as I have been doing for so long I wondered what was wrong with me and if I will ever recover my previous energy levels, good mood and restored balance.

Ah, here come Vanessa and Summer, skipping along in the prime of their youth and beauty, long hair flying and grinning as though their favorite singing idol were waiting for them instead of their used-up-feeling former English teacher. The plan was for us to enjoy some time at KTV and then walk around the mall, after which I would lead them to a ‘foreigner restaurant’ they’d heard about and wanted to try. I missed the KTV session because I had to wait for Sam to return my newly repaired university loaned computer. 

I’m really not feeling well. Dizzy, off balance, my head feeling as though wrapped in cotton batting. You’d think, after living like that for over a year I’d be used to it. I didn’t want to be used to it. I wanted to feel like myself. Mercifully we sat at a cafĂ© and talked rather than taking an extended stroll through the noisy, crowded mall. Although glad to be a part of the outing I really just wanted it to be over with so I could go lay down. We left after only being there for about an hour. Helen’s was not far away and we got there with no incident.

Once we got there things went downhill. What used to be a fine establishment to spend an evening in now qualified as someplace to avoid. The restaurant that served the best hummus I’d ever tasted now served up a plate of mush so oily I felt ashamed recommending it to the girls. Vanessa was not impressed at all with the pasta she ordered and I agreed with her: the noodles were undercooked and hard; the sauce did not even deserve the name “Bolognese”. Summer had the best luck with the barbecue pizza but even so, the crust was too thick and flavorless and it was topped with too much cheese and not enough barbecue.

To add that final touch of gloom, it started raining while we were attempting to dine. None of us had an umbrella. Not wanting to spend an extra minute in the overheated, uncomfortable setting we were in we decided to duck into Mr. Mai’s coffee shop, just a few doors down. Such luck! I’d heard of Mr. Mai’s but as yet had not explored it. This would be my chance.

I’ll not be venturing into Mr. Mai’s again. At 25Yuan for a cup of hot tea – make that a cup of hot water with a teabag in it, not fresh brewed tea – that ‘meeting place for foreigners’ is not a place I will choose to hang out at in the future. The place is brashly lit and the chairs not at all comfortable. At this point our conversation is getting desultory. We were all tired. It was nearing 9PM and we all had to get up early the next day. Besides, we needed to head home: the buses would stop running soon.

The rain fell, unabated. Maybe even harder than before. We had no choice but to get soaked. Unuttered to the girls, I was formulating this entry in my mind: ‘We took a soaking on the night we got soaked.’ Little did I know the blog entry I was already formulating was going to take a dramatic turn.

Hugging the walls in an effort to stay somewhat dry we made our way down the street. I kept an eye out on the shops that were still open in case they sold umbrellas. I was going to buy two: one for the girls to share and one for myself. They were walking ahead, arm in arm and did not pay me any mind. I did not pay myself any mind either, so focused was I on the effort to find umbrellas. That is how I came to trip on the uneven pavement. My ongoing vertigo is what caused me to not recover from that trip with any kind of grace or balance.

I’m not sure why the girls turned around. Maybe I yelped, squealed or shouted out as I was falling, or maybe they just heard the loud ‘bonk’ and subsequent reverberation as the awning rattled when my head made contact with the angled piece of wrought iron that was supporting it. Or was it steel? Still not sure, and at this point it is all academic. The end result is that my head started bleeding copiously, a fact I was not initially aware of because I thought the liquid pattering down my face was rain from my soaked hair.

Until Summer shrieked as though being eviscerated.    

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Roberta Battles a Dust Rhino




My all-time favorite cartoonist, Gary Larson drew, among many other memorable panels, one titled the same as this entry. In fact I am ‘borrowing’ that caption from him. The cartoon features his trademark ‘housewife’: large of hip and wearing a flower-print dress and heels, horn rimmed glasses and hair done up in a beehive. She is holding an upright vacuum cleaner parallel to the ground, staving off a salivating gray rhino.

My name is not Roberta but I do have a dust rhino: my home. In the short time I was in Qing Dao my entire house – the floors, furniture and even the walls got coated in dust. To be perfectly fair I did remove the dust covers I had placed on the furniture before my trip to the States, and I hadn’t yet cleaned from that 5-week absence before I set off all over China, exploring again. So, in fact the accumulation of dust I speak of I figured I could clean all at once, after all of my summer traveling adventures. It promised to be an epic task. A rhinoceros sized task, to be exact.

I do know of a Roberta though. I’ve never met her in person but talked with her on the phone a few times. Her husband and I worked together. Never was there a man more devoted to his wife. His constant refrain: ‘Whatever she wants’.  Roberta had serious health issues. When she ailed he ran, no matter what job he was tackling while on the payroll. As his boss not only did I not blame him but actually encouraged him.

Mel was in his seventies when I joined the team. His children are older than I and here I am, his boss. Not that I ever took a ‘boss’ attitude. This man knew his job better than I ever could. The same went for most of my technicians. I had no illusions about it: never did I seek to direct their efforts. My job was to enable their abilities, be a buffer between upper management and them. I believe it was that management style that made me so successful. To this day, even though I now live on the other side of the world most of us still stay in touch whether they are retired or still on active duty. Every year, when I make my pilgrimage stateside I make a stop in Dallas for the exclusive purpose of visiting with my friends/former coworkers.

I miss them. What does that have to do with dust?

After living in Wuhan for 2 years, I still don’t know how to clean house. If I clean the living room the dining room is a dust heap. If I clean the office my bedroom is overcome. If I clean the bathroom within a  day it is dirty/dusty again. By the time I clean the kitchen the living room needs to be cleaned again. If I dust the surfaces the floors suffer and if I do the floor the surfaces end up coated. The cycle is neverending. Kind of like the neverending cycle of jams, preventive maintenance routines and bearing replacements on the machines Mel and the guys worked on. Kind of like the dust they had to sweep away to get to the things they had to repair.          

Would I have fewer dust problems if my house were carpeted? Probably fewer visible problems but my house would be dirty nonetheless. I’d have to wield the vacuum cleaner more often, like the Roberta in that cartoon panel. And, being as I moved into this apartment when everything was brand new and the complex was still being built I would have to deal with the toxic fumes from the carpet as well as the glues and the walls’ whitewash. If I had carpet I would probably have worse allergy symptoms. From a cleaning and health perspective it is better that I don’t have carpet.

From a ‘warmth in the winter’ perspective, I wish I did have carpet. Winter is coming up… but that is another issue.

I constantly ponder how to get and keep my house clean. I like a clean house but I don’t like to devote my life to cleaning it. How to battle that infernal dust rhino that the cartoon Roberta seems to have cornered?

As more apartments around this housing area are complete more and more people are moving in. During the height of summer, most run their air conditioners. You know it is hot when the people in the Over the Wall community run their air conditioners. Yet here I am, the only fool with windows and patio doors wide open!

Wide open window and patio doors. It occurred to me, walking home one day that seldom do I see a window in an apartment occupied by native Chinese flung all the way open, A/C running or not. Usually they have their windows open early morning or around dusk, and never one that opens directly in to a room. That reinforced the advice Sam gave me a while back in virtually those exact words. Maybe there is something to the opening and closing of windows I should explore. But first I had to get the house clean.

Resorting to the Chinese way of cleaning house – sloshing water all over everything and mopping it all up, I modified that practice by combining water with a laminated floor cleaner in a spray bottle. Then I put fresh dust liners on my nifty dust mop with its swivel head and took my floors to task after dusting all horizontal surfaces.

Two packs of disposable dust cloths later I am proud to report that it worked like a charm! The misted dust on the floor had no chance to go flying around and land on the furniture or elsewhere on some other part of the floor. I was ecstatic… until I saw the floor after it dried. Streaks, I tell you! Muddy streaks are all I got for my efforts! Until I figured out that I needed to buff the floor after it dries. And buff I did.

Oh Joy! Oh Miracle! Oh Donna Reed, goddess of housekeeping!!! My floors are beautiful! They reflect the furniture, the walls, the drapes. No more gray haze! No more dust rhino!

No more windows and doors flung wide open at my house.

I wish I could call that cartoon Roberta to tell her how to successfully banish her dust rhino. Pointless exercise, I know. She is a cartoon figure, dreamed up in the curious, over-imaginative mind of the long-since-retired Mr. Larson. I can’t call the real Roberta, either. She left Mel earlier this year, not for some mundane reason but because her time on this earth was over.

When I got the news, all the times that Mel confided in me, ranted at me, ran in my office in a panic to let me know his Roberta needed him and then dashing back out flashed through my mind. Tall, skinny, red-headed Mel, dumbfounded that this fantastic woman has seen fit to love him and forever in love with his Roberta, so much so that he would sacrifice anything to please her. This Mel, old enough to be my father, with his pants too short and his threadbare hoodie, carrying his lunch in a much used paper sack and carrying that same paper sack home with him for tomorrow's lunch, hurrying down that long hallway and out the door.  This Mel no longer has his Roberta by his side.

Ashes to ashes and dust to dust… isn’t that what they say when one is laid to rest?

Mel, there is not a single time battling my dust rhino that I don’t think of you and Roberta. I hope this offers you a small comfort from your friend, an ocean away.         

My all-time favorite cartoonist, Gary Larson drew, among many other memorable panels, one titled the same as this entry. In fact I am ‘borrowing’ that caption from him. The cartoon features his trademark ‘housewife’: large of hip and wearing a flower-print dress and heels, horn rimmed glasses and hair done up in a beehive. She is holding an upright vacuum cleaner parallel to the ground, staving off a salivating gray rhino.

My name is not Roberta but I do have a dust rhino: my home. In the short time I was in Qing Dao my entire house – the floors, furniture and even the walls got coated in dust. To be perfectly fair I did remove the dust covers I had placed on the furniture before my trip to the States, and I hadn’t yet cleaned from that 5-week absence before I set off all over China, exploring again. So, in fact the accumulation of dust I speak of I figured I could clean all at once, after all of my summer traveling adventures. It promised to be an epic task. A rhinoceros sized task, to be exact.

I do know of a Roberta though. I’ve never met her in person but talked with her on the phone a few times. Her husband and I worked together. Never was there a man more devoted to his wife. His constant refrain: ‘Whatever she wants’.  Roberta had serious health issues. When she ailed he ran, no matter what job he was tackling while on the payroll. As his boss not only did I not blame him but actually encouraged him.

Mel was in his seventies when I joined the team. His children are older than I and here I am, his boss. Not that I ever took a ‘boss’ attitude. This man knew his job better than I ever could. The same went for most of my technicians. I had no illusions about it: never did I seek to direct their efforts. My job was to enable their abilities, be a buffer between upper management and them. I believe it was that management style that made me so successful. To this day, even though I now live on the other side of the world most of us still stay in touch whether they are retired or still on active duty. Every year, when I make my pilgrimage stateside I make a stop in Dallas for the exclusive purpose of visiting with my friends/former coworkers.

I miss them. What does that have to do with dust?

After living in Wuhan for 2 years, I still don’t know how to clean house. If I clean the living room the dining room is a dust heap. If I clean the office my bedroom is overcome. If I clean the bathroom within a  day it is dirty/dusty again. By the time I clean the kitchen the living room needs to be cleaned again. If I dust the surfaces the floors suffer and if I do the floor the surfaces end up coated. The cycle is neverending. Kind of like the neverending cycle of jams, preventive maintenance routines and bearing replacements on the machines Mel and the guys worked on. Kind of like the dust they had to sweep away to get to the things they had to repair.          

Would I have fewer dust problems if my house were carpeted? Probably fewer visible problems but my house would be dirty nonetheless. I’d have to wield the vacuum cleaner more often, like the Roberta in that cartoon panel. And, being as I moved into this apartment when everything was brand new and the complex was still being built I would have to deal with the toxic fumes from the carpet as well as the glues and the walls’ whitewash. If I had carpet I would probably have worse allergy symptoms. From a cleaning and health perspective it is better that I don’t have carpet.

From a ‘warmth in the winter’ perspective, I wish I did have carpet. Winter is coming up… but that is another issue.

I constantly ponder how to get and keep my house clean. I like a clean house but I don’t like to devote my life to cleaning it. How to battle that infernal dust rhino that the cartoon Roberta seems to have cornered?

As more apartments around this housing area are complete more and more people are moving in. During the height of summer, most run their air conditioners. You know it is hot when the people in the Over the Wall community run their air conditioners. Yet here I am, the only fool with windows and patio doors wide open!

Wide open window and patio doors. It occurred to me, walking home one day that seldom do I see a window in an apartment occupied by native Chinese flung all the way open, A/C running or not. Usually they have their windows open early morning or around dusk, and never one that opens directly in to a room. That reinforced the advice Sam gave me a while back in virtually those exact words. Maybe there is something to the opening and closing of windows I should explore. But first I had to get the house clean.

Resorting to the Chinese way of cleaning house – sloshing water all over everything and mopping it all up, I modified that practice by combining water with a laminated floor cleaner in a spray bottle. Then I put fresh dust liners on my nifty dust mop with its swivel head and took my floors to task after dusting all horizontal surfaces.

Two packs of disposable dust cloths later I am proud to report that it worked like a charm! The misted dust on the floor had no chance to go flying around and land on the furniture or elsewhere on some other part of the floor. I was ecstatic… until I saw the floor after it dried. Streaks, I tell you! Muddy streaks are all I got for my efforts! Until I figured out that I needed to buff the floor after it dries. And buff I did.

Oh Joy! Oh Miracle! Oh Donna Reed, goddess of housekeeping!!! My floors are beautiful! They reflect the furniture, the walls, the drapes. No more gray haze! No more dust rhino!

No more windows and doors flung wide open at my house.

I wish I could call that cartoon Roberta to tell her how to successfully banish her dust rhino. Pointless exercise, I know. She is a cartoon figure, dreamed up in the curious, over-imaginative mind of the long-since-retired Mr. Larson. I can’t call the real Roberta, either. She left Mel earlier this year, not for some mundane reason but because her time on this earth was over.

When I got the news, all the times that Mel confided in me, ranted at me, ran in my office in a panic to let me know his Roberta needed him and then dashing back out flashed through my mind. Tall, skinny, red-headed Mel, dumbfounded that this fantastic woman has seen fit to love him and forever in love with his Roberta, so much so that he would sacrifice anything to please her. This Mel, old enough to be my father, with his pants too short and his threadbare hoodie, carrying his lunch in a much used paper sack and carrying that same paper sack home with him for tomorrow's lunch, hurrying down that long hallway and out the door.  This Mel no longer has his Roberta by his side.

Ashes to ashes and dust to dust… isn’t that what they say when one is laid to rest?

Mel, there is not a single time battling my dust rhino that I don’t think of you and Roberta. I hope this offers you a small comfort from your friend, an ocean away.         

Return to Wuhan




When we last left off I was on a train, leaving Qing Dao and a typhoon behind. Since then I have been visited by a serious bonk on the head and my arm in a cast… but that is the subject of another whole series of entries. I only mention it here to explain the huge gap between entries. It is decidedly difficult to type with one’s arm in a cast.

But now the cast is off and I am prepared to tell you all about my return to Wuhan, and how I dallied twenty-one hours away on the train.

What does one do when confined to a narrow seat for twenty one hours? What can one do? The trip from Qing Dao back to Wuhan is longer than a flight from China to the States. In flight there are several entertainment options: movies and games provided by the seatback entertainment system. There are kindly hosts and hostesses who bring food, drink, pillows and blankets. There are fellow passengers to hold discourse with. You can bring a book. You can get up and walk around, maybe even do a few isometric exercises. Sleeping is also nice.

There are no movies or games on the train unless you bring your own. There are no hosts or hostesses providing complimentary food, however there are vendors that will sell you anything from snacks to full meals. I’ll get to those vendors in a few minutes. There are fellow passengers and I’ll get to those in just a few, too. I had a book and I did read. I also had a notebook and pen – invaluable, in the situation I was in. Getting up and walking around is out of the question, the train being so full of passengers they and their luggage crowd the aisles. I did do some isometric exercises but slept only poorly.

Train seats, as opposed to airline seats do not recline, nor to they consider any type of ergonomic theory. Essentially a train seat is much like a dining room chair: hard, straight-backed at a ninety degree angle. One hundred and eighteen seats crowd each car. Passengers battle for leg room and larger passengers like me get very little squirm room.

Back to the original question: What did I do for 21 hours on the train? The first five hours were fully occupied by drafting blog notes, and then recording curriculum notes for the entire year. When Sam was planning class schedules he made sure that Victor and I switched classes mid-year, so that each of us would only need to come up with thirteen weeks worth of material to teach. We could then recycle that material to the fresh batch of students. Class scheduling has since passed to Hellen, the Unpleasant One. She did not switch Victor’s and my groups during the 2011/2012 academic year, so he and I had to expend all the material we would normally have explored over the two years we teach the same groups. There was a strong likelihood that I would have the same students for their sophomore year as I had for both semesters last year. So, to be prepared for that eventuality, I came up with all new material.

I wonder if Victor is prepared to teach the same groups he taught last year?

That was just a fleeting thought and occupied only an iota of the 21 hours I had to kill on the train.

What else did I do?

It would have been great to use my new, fancy android phone to play games, surf the ‘Net or get in touch with friends but the minutes were expended and the battery was close to dying. Matter of fact, when I received that last message from Gary about the typhoon I had to borrow my seatmate’s phone to call Gary back.

Seatmates! There’s a way to pass some time! I could talk to my seatmates, right? WRONG!!! This being the end of summer break, the train was full of students. The very last thing I wanted or needed was a train full of students, all bound for Wuhan wanting to practice their English, so I continued the little deception I had refined in Qing Dao: I am French and don’t speak a word of English. However, if you’d like to converse in Chinese… no one was interested in conversing with me in halting Chinese when they could converse fluently amongst themselves. Thus I achieved near total isolation in a train car filled to capacity.
Now, here is something I simply do not get about ye average Chinese traveler: instead of streamlining their packing to a single piece of luggage they will carry several small bags, some of them maybe even just plastic shopping bags. And then they struggle for space in the overhead luggage racks, or they put their collections of bags in the already limited legroom space.

Inevitably one or two of those bags will be filled with food: fruit, bowls of ramen noodles and vacuum packed delicacies like chicken feet and pickled fish and spicy sausage and something sweet for dessert. Most bring sunflower seeds, a standard in China. The part that I don’t get is that they will spend upward of 50Yuan buying these snacks at the train station concessions when, aboard the train, around mealtime a vendor will sell complete hot meals consisting of rice, some kind of meat and several vegetables for only 10Yuan. Why go through the expense of buying the food and then the discomfort of lugging and storing the food when, for a fraction of the cost one can buy a hot meal on board?

I admit that I too had thought about stocking up on food before boarding, but at the last minute reasoned that the caterer will come through in the evening and again come breakfast time. I did not bring any snacks on board. To my misfortune the prepared meal that night included fish – what did I expect with the train originating in Qing Dao? I skipped the fish but everything else was tasty and substantial, well worth the 10Yuan I paid for it.

After all the writing and some reading and eating, I dozed. By now my posterior was not happy and my legs were cramping. Spend some time standing up, do some exercises… find some comfortable way to sit. By now most of the passengers had dozed off; I was hoping to do the same. I finally found a comfortable if unconventional position: knees in the seat, butt on the edge of the table and head on the seatback. In that position I was able to relieve some of the leg distress and most of the rear end agony, and I did sleep more or less well for a couple of hours. Come time for the breakfast food cart, I paid my 10Yuan for a hardboiled egg, some congee, some sort of breakfast meat and rice. A nice tea and I came more or less fully awake.

The train skated into the station, right on time. That would be a few minutes past noon. Thinking of my phone woes and the fact that I had no food at my house I debated the best way to remedy all those situations before going home. We had pulled in to Hankou train station, not the one by my school. There is no bus to take me directly home, and even if there were I needed to recharge my minutes and buy food before I went home. Breakfast having long been digested I was hungry again. Even though I did rest on the train it wasn’t quality sleep, so I was a little drowsy.

Striding out of the station purposefully I considered my options. Here we have bus 601 that will take me to a shopping center that features a cellphone store and a Walmart. There is also a Starbucks. I can reload my phone and buy some of that delicious sausage at Walmart, and then sit at Starbucks for a while, recharge my phone battery and read or drowse. Afterward I can take bus 777 to connect with bus 34 that will take me directly home. The selected buses traditionally have a lot of empty seats so I should have plenty of room for my legs and bags. There it is: everything I need, engineered in one fell swoop. 

As bus 601 wended its way around the train station and into mainstream traffic I thought about how I now know Wuhan so well that I can plan my way around town with no qualms whatsoever. The bus system, once a daunting foe is now my ally. The streets, once so rough they couldn’t even be called proper streets glide smoothly away beneath the bus’ tires. The quest for food that once left me so desperate that I resorted to eating at McDonalds’ is now so easy I know exactly which store stocks whatever particular item I desire. Looking out the window at the familiar skyline, watching people scuttle about, I reflected on the feeling of…

Of finally having found my home.