Monday, April 18, 2011

A Birthday Surprise

Last week I received a birthday greeting e-mail from my friend Sue who lives in New Hampshire.  In it she said, “I hope for you something unexpectedly beautiful and something unexpectedly exciting!”  I don’t think a trip to the Zhuhai Hospital #5 Emergency room was what she had in mind.
Josh had left early Monday morning for a service-learning trip to Shenzhen. Junior high students from his school, together with junior high students from an international school in Shenzhen, spent three days participating in outdoor activities and volunteering at a community care center for migrant children. Shenzhen, often called the Overnight City, has a huge population of factory workers who migrated there from more distant, and often rural, areas.  (There is a documentary film about the effect of all this on families that has received critical acclaim called Last Train Home.) 
On Tuesday I had a perfectly lovely day.  I met with my class from 8 -10 AM, met with my colleague Kris to plan our class for the next day, then spent the afternoon shopping with my friend Yanyan.  I even found a dress to wear to Yanyan’s wedding in two weeks, which was the major goal of our shopping.  Given the fact I am a giant by Mainland China standards this was quite an accomplishment.  That evening, I contentedly read a little farther in Peter Hessler’s Country Driving, and went to sleep for the night, happy for the opportunity uneventfully celebrate my birthday by sleeping in a little later in the morning.
At six am I woke up with serious discomfort in the lower right side of my back that radiated into the right side of my abdomen. I absolutely could not figure out what it was, and no amount of repositioning seemed to make it any better.  I got up, moved around, stretched on floor, and started to get concerned.  Sometimes it seemed a little less severe and I thought I must have some gas trapped in my twisty, turny intestines.  (I happen to know I have very twisty turny intestines since I have had the pleasure of multiple colonoscopies at past points in my life.)
I sent a text message to my colleague Kris, who lives in the same apartment complex, and asked if she would go with me to the small traditional Chinese medicine clinic located in the clubhouse within complex where we live.  She agreed, and met me at my apartment a short time later.  While walking to the clinic the pain subsided a bit, and once again, I thought it was something that would pass and I would make it to school later that day.  Kris explained what was going on to the doctor there, who listened to my pulse and suggested that my circulation was poor.  He recommended acupuncture, and I agreed to try that to see if it would help.
When laying on my stomach the doctor first did some massage work on my back, and the pain diminished.  He then placed the acupuncture needles at strategic places and told me to try to relax.  After awhile he removed the needles and asked me to roll on to my back.  I did this and the pain came back with a vengeance.  He tried a few more things then suggested if the pain continued I should go to the hospital.  Kris walked me back to my apartment and I encouraged her to go teach her class promising I would call if I needed her.
Then I did what any 21st Century person does when grappling with an unknown ailment.  I googled “pain in lower right side of abdomen.” The first thing that came up was “appendicitis.”  There is an added complication to this possibility because in my family the appendix is often “retrocecal” meaning it is located behind the part of the intestine called the “cecum” and no amount of pushing and prodding on your abdomen elicits the response that normally indicates appendicitis.  In other words, even doctors who speak perfect English and practice in the U.S. – often miss this one.   
I decided it was time to go to the hospital, and I called Jessica, the staff member in International Education who is my “go-to” person whenever I don’t know how to handle something. Jessica spoke to her supervisor, who called me back and said a student would come to my apartment and escort me to the hospital.  Then I sent an e-mail to my husband saying I needed to speak to him on Skype and to call me right away.  By this point, my pain was escalating and I knew I really needed to get to the hospital.  Bob called and I spoke to him for a few minutes and explained what was going on, sent off a few e-mails to explain why I could not be in class, cancelled my rehearsal, and called Josh’s principal in case other arrangements needed to be made for Josh when he returned from his trip later that day.  My door buzzer rang, my escorts Veer and Vankcine (two first year students from UIC) had arrived and they helped me down to the waiting car (with a very kind driver) and off we went to the hospital.  
Veer (left), Michele and Vankcine.
I knew exactly where Hospital #5 was, because I had passed it on the bus multiple times.  I knew the Hospital was only 10-15 minutes from the apartment, but at this point, on a scale of 1 – 10, the pain I was feeling was easily a nine.  I was sweating profusely, griping the door handle and praying not only that I would be okay, but that I would not pass out before we got there.  Veer, Vankcine and the driver (who’s name I never got) were my guardian angels for the next five hours. 
Hospital #5 is very large and institutional.  And, we had arrived close to lunchtime.  But Veer and Vankcine got me registered and into see a doctor in just a few minutes.  The doctor thumped the left side of my back (fine) then thumped the right side of my back, which almost sent me through the roof and resulted in me yelping very loudly.  He ordered an ultra sound to be performed, and Veer ran off to find a wheel chair for me, and Vankcine held my hand and kept reassuring me I would be okay.
Off we went, kind driver, Veer, Vankcine, and me the wheelchair, to another floor to find the “ultrasonics unit.”  When we arrived, we could see through the glass doors there was a chain around the handles.  The staff was having lunch.  But my escorts were not to be stopped and they started shouting through the opening between the doors.  Soon a nurse came out, and they took me inside and a few minutes later I was being examined by the ultra sound technician.  I explained the whole business about my appendix not being located in the usual spot and then the technician spoke to the students.  They translated to me, “he said he understands quite a bit of English, but does not speak it well.  It is not your appendix.”  He asked me roll on to my stomach and for some reason the pain escalated again.  After a few minutes the technician cleaned the ultra sound gel off my skin and spoke to my faithful translators.  “He says you are building up fluid around your kidney, because you have a kidney stone blocking.”  Now I had heard that passing a kidney stone could be as painful as childbirth but I never quite believed it.  About four years ago, I had ongoing discomfort in my back and was diagnosed with having small kidney stones, told to drink more water and reassured that I would pass them.  But that experience was nothing like this. 
At this point we returned to the main area of the emergency room, and Veer ran off to get the medications.  The pain was so bad I was completely nauseated.  In Chinese hospitals you need to pay for your medications (and treatments) before they give them to you.  I was given two injections (one for pain, and one for the “kidney stones”) and then hooked up to an I.V., which I assumed was to hydrate me.  After about an hour the hydration was working and I needed to use the bathroom, so Vankcine held my I.V. bag and escorted me to a typical bathroom found in commercial buildings in China.  This bathroom contained what we not so affectionately refer to as “squats.”  (No toilet, just a porcelain toilet bowl submerged in the floor, with a space on each side for your feet.) I managed to use the bathroom, and get back to bed in the E.R, before the nausea took over and I started vomiting.  A short time later, they switched my I.V. to a glucose solution, and I actually started to feel quite a bit better and even dozed off a little. About four in the afternoon, I was released with a bag of medication, sterile needles, I.V solutions, and instructions to drink more water, keep exercising (to help the kidney stone move along) and return, to either this hospital or the one closer to UIC , the next two days for injections and I.V.’s.  At this point I was so relieved to be out of the pain I was almost giddy.
My two trusty translators and the kind driver (who had checked on us all afternoon), took me back to my apartment, where I called Josh’s principal (told him I was back home and instructed Josh to take an taxi back to the apartment when he arrived at the Port), sent an e-mail to Bob (“I’m okay  - it was a kidney stone”), drank lots of water, and answered the phone a lot in between multiple trips to the bathroom. 
I tried to take if fairly easy the next few days.  Sandra, the administrative assistant in the General Education office, escorted me to the hospital for my follow up I.V’s, on Thursday, and Genie the T.A. in the General Education office, relieved Sandra of her escort duty and sat with me the remaining time on Thursday, and all of Friday.  Each time the two I.V.’s took about four hours to administer.  Needless to say I learned a lot more about Genie’s life, and she learned a lot more about mine.
So yes, I did have some unexpected excitement on my birthday.  I am not someone who believes bad things happen for a reason.  Sometimes bad things just happen. 

Acknowledging that, I will also say there was a lot of unexpected beauty in this experience.  I mentioned in an earlier post the famous quote from A Streetcar Named Desire about being dependent on the kindness of strangers.  I cannot say enough about how kind and supportive Veer and Vankcine were throughout this experience.  I got together with them on Friday to settle our finances.  (Which by the way, came to a total of 787 RMB or $120.)  I told them it was a really scary experience to be in so much pain, but they had helped to make the whole thing less frightening.  Then they mentioned, for the first time, that they had been scared too.  We agreed to meet for tea or a meal later in the semester. 
While I felt very alone in the early morning hours on Wednesday, once I made one phone call, an entire support structure fell into place and I experienced heartwarming care and concern from students, staff, colleagues and administrators.  I would classify that as both unexpected and beautiful. 

Josh posted a note on my facebook wall that basically said it all.  "Hi Mom happy birthday! I know it may not be the best birthday you've had but you will remember this one.  Love Josh."

Indeed I will. 

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Hong Kong Milk Tea

This is the first time in many years I have had to contend with loneliness.  In my day-to-day life at home there is not enough “me” to go around and I relish the rare opportunities to be alone.  While I am happy that Josh has found a community of friends at his school, in means that most weekends and holidays he is on the other side of the city with them, and I am on my own.
Except for the very wealthy, Chinese people do not generally entertain in their homes.  May-lee Chai and Winberg Chai in their book, China A to Z: Everything You Need to Know to Understand Chinese Customs and Culture, write, “Generally, Chinese do not casually invite people over to their homes the same way that Americans do.  While it is common in the United States for colleagues to visit each other’s homes for dinner, backyard barbecues, and the like, it is not uncommon for Chinese never to visit their colleagues’ homes at all.  There are many cultural and material reasons for this, including the stricter sense of hierarchy in workplace environments; a feeling of shame or loss of face if one’s apartment is not as nice as that of one’s coworkers; the fact that unless someone is very rich, their apartment might be quite cramped and they may even have extended family members living with them. 
So it was solitude overload, which lead me to take an early shuttle to campus on Wednesday even though I did not teach until 2:00 PM.  At about 9:30 AM, I realized I had left the stack of (still needing to be graded) papers in my apartment.  I started to walk to the bus stop to go back to the apartment and get the papers, when I realized I did not have the key for my evening rehearsal and made a sharp turn and instead walked to the Student Hostel Village office where the key holder resides.  After being told I could not get the key before 5:00 PM, I decided to throw in the towel, get a cup of Hong Kong milk tea, and attempt to adjust my quickly tanking attitude.
Over the past weekend I had spent a great deal of time reading student papers.  One included a reference to the Chris Gardner story portrayed by Will Smith in the movie The Pursuit of Happyness.  Contrary to the intentional misspelling in the title, the language in the film that my student found inspirational, was, “It’s an “I” in happiness, there is no “y”, it’s an “I”.  And sitting in the Student village, sipping my Hong Kong milk tea, I reminded myself that I was the one ultimately responsible for determining if my experience in China is positive or negative.  I was able to convince myself I did not really need to trek back to the apartment to get those papers, and instead enjoyed a little cafĂ© time. 
Which brings me back to the topic of Hong Kong milk tea.  Ever since I was in Ireland in 1997, I have liked my hot tea “white” or with a shot of milk in it.  Hong Kong milk tea has more than a shot of milk, and is usually served with a few packets of sugar so you can sweeten it to your individual taste.  I cannot say why it appeals to me so much at this time, just as I can’t explain why Jell-O suddenly appealed to me in my ninth month of pregnancy.  All I know is right now it is my cup of comfort.
Milk tea is undoubtedly a remnant of the British colonization of Hong Kong.  Other than sleeping in HK one night before taking the ferry to Zhuhai I have only spent one day there.  Two weeks ago, Josh, his friend Anthony and I did a thorough investigation of the skateboard shops in Hong Kong.  I can report that there are a least five shops all located within a few block radius of a chi-chi area called Causeway Bay.  Down small alleys, and up back staircases behind stores with designer names, you find the board shops.  After our thorough exploration and price comparisons, we camped out briefly at Starbucks to make decisions prior to returning for purchases.  Josh got his much desired long board at a shop called X-Games, and Anthony got a signature 8 Five 2 board at the 8 Five 2 shop. 
We had two good meals, appreciated the efficiency of the HK subway system, stocked up on a few groceries impossible to find on the mainland (tortillas, raspberry jam, canned tomatoes and kalamata olives) and returned via ferry to Zhuhai, thoroughly exhausted. 
I would like to go back to Hong Kong and explore its realms beyond the skateboard shops.  I also want to see other cities and historical sites.  But it is clear that the only way that is going to happen is if I take the initiative, make the arrangements, and most likely venture to those locations on my own.  So that is the tough part, trying to get comfortable with the fact that just like in the word “happiness”, there is only the letter “I” smack dab in the middle China.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Why I Travel

This morning, I was reading the global edition of the New York Times on-line, and came across a request for stories or essays that answered the question,  “Have you been particularly enlightened, surprised to changed by a travel experience?  Why do you travel?”  I give my students specific assignments all the time, so I decided to give myself this assignment, and challenged myself to even submit it.  The prize is an autographed copy of Paul Theroux’s new book The Tao of Travel. 
I don’t really expect to get the autographed book, but I did submit my essay.  So here it is. 
I travel, and do so with my fourteen-year-old son, because I want him to appreciate the fragility of life, and I do not want him to be afraid of the world.  These two goals may seem contradictory, but really they are not.  At this moment in history, the world seems to be experiencing more than its fair share of cataclysmic disasters and political upheavals, but natural disasters are always a possibility, and violence and unrest are ever present at some spot on the globe.
We are bombarded with violent images from all over the world.  Watching from the comfort of our homes, this coverage not only fuels the fear of “others,” it has the potential to distance us – giving the illusion that these horrific things could happen only to “them.”  
In mid December my son and I were in Rome, Italy when Berlusconi narrowly survived a recount vote and the streets erupted into window smashing, car burning protests.  Reading about the recent bomb explosion outside of the Jerusalem bus station took on a new sense of relevance given that we had been in and out of that precise bus station numerous times this past January.  And, watching the tragedy of the events unfold in Japan, resonated on a different level since we had recently spent an unintended 24 hours in Tokyo having missed our connection in route to China.
Which brings us to our time in the People’s Republic of China, where we find ourselves in the situation of being the “others.”  We are here for five and half month while I am teaching at a school in Guangdong Province.  Each weekday my son takes a public bus, a fifty-minute ride, to the opposite side of the city to attend a small international school.  With rare exception, he is the only Gwei Lo (Cantonese for “ghost person”) on the bus.  Having grown up as a fair-haired boy in a small town in Minnesota, his life experience has always been that of being in the majority.  Teaching at a small liberal arts college in Minnesota, I regularly look out at a sea of Caucasian students often having only one African, Asian, or Latino student in the entire class. Being in the position of being the “other” shakes up your perspective.
I am often reminded of that famous line from A Streetcar Named Desire when Blanche DuBois says, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”  While traveling together, rarely a day goes by when we have not been dependent on the “kindness of strangers,” and I sincerely hope we will both have the courage, sensitivity and empathy, to step into the role of kind stranger once back on familiar shores.
What is learned through traveling is often learned in hindsight, and we are still very much in the thick of the experience.  But I have to believe that travel makes the demarcation between “us” and “them” less rigid. Which brings me back to the fragility of life, or more precisely, the fragility and value of every life.  The tsunami that swept over Japan did not distinguish between rich or poor, young or old, Asian or American.  Similarly, planes that crash, bombs that go off and cancer that strikes, – all do so with some degree of indiscrimination.  I travel, and take my teenage son with me, because it affirms for me that there are good and kind people all over this planet, and not one us holds a guarantee to a long life.