Exploring China

I waited on a hard bench to board the train for Beijing.  My goal was to visit traditional medical colleges and clinics to seek help for back pain stemming from a mild case of childhood polio.  Around me sat shy rural people in gray Mao suits laden with baskets of food, steel thermoses and over-stuffed shopping bags.  In a separate universe, the stylish urban young clung to cell phones and designer leather bags.                                                          Outside, the October rain blew like curtains of gray gauze.  Behind the veils, the sprawling city of Shanghai shimmered in the dark, a sea of twinkling lights and neon.  I’d come to visit my son, who’d been working in China five years and spoke several dialects including Mandarin.  This was my fourth trip to China and with my son as cultural teacher, and having made some progress with the language, I was ready to venture off on my own.  Chris had made my reservations and asked our taxi driver to drop me at the railroad station.
We boarded our sleeper car, a rolling dormitory.  Strangers got acquainted.  Children played in the long aisle and foreigners were offered surprises slipped from brimming picnic hampers.  My few words of Mandarin echoed up and down the car as people smiled at my efforts and repeated my phrases.  “Did you hear what she said?  She’s learning putong hua, the People’s Speech.”
By morning, we had become a big extended family waking up together in tiers of bunks, everyone’s hair tousled, clothes and bedding disheveled.  Even the cell phone users, their cool collapsed by sleep, looked innocent of pretense.  A plump boy of three ran full tilt down the aisle while confused elders sat up and took steaming cups of tea in two hands.  I dressed then stood by the windows with a group of men gazing out at the misty dawn.
The train clattered onto a trestle over a huge river.  I pulled out my map and asked a middle-aged man, “Huang Huh ma?”  Is it the Yellow River?   “Shuh.” Yes it is, he said. “Huang Huh, da jiang.”  The Yellow River, the big river.  Now it was his words that moved among the people like an electric current.  “Huang Huh, Huang Huh.”  Some moved to the windows to take in the vast width of it, the legendary waters of the river where China began.
They all know the story, how ten thousand years ago beside the great curve of this stream, the first farmers built their villages, cast bronze and made pottery, and how they carved the shapes of words into their tombs.  Most Chinese are pluggers, not dreamers, but crossing the Huang Huh stirred them.  The shared glances told me this river would be part of their journey stories later.
As the red sun rose, we watched people on bikes along country roads where oxcarts and chatting groups of workers made their way.  Small children waved at the train.  We chugged through towns with factories coughing smoke into the blue sky.  At noon we pulled into Beijing.  Everyone stood, getting organized.  By cell phone, a well-dressed woman in bold make-up arranged to be met.
Feigning confidence, I pulled my rolling bag through the station and onto a sunny terrace where dozens of taxis waited.  My heart raced for a moment.  Would they understand my halting words? I stepped out, a stranger in strange land.  Swallowing, I unfolded the address I’d been given and stepped up to an alert young taxi man with a bad haircut, who had been shouting at the crowd.
He read the address, smiled and lifted my bag into the trunk of his black taxi.  He gestured for me to climb in, while he continued to shout for passengers.  The crowd thinned, but he would not give up.  “When we go?” I asked, in my best Mandarin.  “One more person.”  Heartened that he’d understood my question, I got out again to wait, leaning on the sun-warmed rear fender, chatting with English-speaking tourists climbing into nearby cabs.  At last, everyone had gone.
“How much go my place?”  I asked the driver.
“It costs a lot for one person.  Twenty yuan.”  It was about three dollars.
“Good.  We go.”  I’d worked every day for months with a Mandarin speaking friend back home, just to have this conversation.  I’d kicked the floor in frustration over the odd sounds so I could survive this place.  Shanghai had been a slap in my face.  They speak don’t speak Mandarin.  They speak Shanghainese and only a tiny bit of that dialect had made sense.  Now I was hearing my teacher’s refined Beijing accent and I got it — what a relief.
The hostel, a private hotel set aside for visitors to the School of Traditional Medicine, opens onto a broad paved square in the center of an immense city block.  It lies about three miles east of the Forbidden City at the heart of Beijing.  You enter this square through a grand old cast iron gate with a guardhouse.   I paid the driver and went inside.  The women at the desk spoke no English but the transaction was a basic one and soon I was unpacking in a shabby room with bath.  My windows faced a high wall beyond a yard filled with honey locust trees.
Going out a while later, I heard two men speaking English and said hello.  One of them caught up with me near the guardhouse.   “Hello, Madam.”  I turned and gave him a smile.  He was balding and, like me, middle aged.  We decided to go exploring together.
He’d also just arrived.  We talked as we strolled through the narrow lanes of the old hutong, or traditional neighborhood.  He was Egyptian, taught medicine in Cairo, and had just come from North Korea.  I said, “You’re the only person I’ve ever met who’s been to North Korea.  Tell me about the place.”
“Of course.”  He smiled.  “If you will be so kind as to join me for dinner.”  We chose a crowded restaurant with good smells and sat at a small table with our elbows almost touching those of our neighbors.  Curious about foreigners, most of the other diners stopped eating to watch us.
My new friend asked me to order, so I chose several dishes, pretending to know what to expect.  “North Korea,” Ali began.  “Pyongyang is the saddest place you can imagine. There is no life in North Korea, nothing, a feeling of no hope.  And spies everywhere, watching.  You cannot conceive of the repression.  I am so happy to get out of there.”
Our café faced a wide avenue with endless streams of trucks of all sizes, hundreds of people on bicycles, stalls brimming with food and manufactured goods.  Ali gestured to the busy street outside. “This place has life.”  Perhaps satisfied we were going to blend in, people around us returned to their food, conversation, smoking and tea drinking.
Ali had come to Beijing to learn about Chinese medicine.  “The poorer people of Egypt cannot afford imported pharmaceuticals or the kind of hospitals you have in America.  I must teach my students about what works for us.  We have to use what patients can pay for.  Herbs, acupuncture, massage – these Chinese practices can stop suffering.”
Eating clumsily with chopsticks, we exclaimed over broccoli with walnuts in a rich dark sauce, shredded beef fried with water chestnuts and slivered green beans.  The deferential waiter returned with a heavy pot of jasmine tea.
“There must be clubs here, with girls,” Ali said.  “In a city like this, where do men go at night?”
“I can’t help you with that one.”  I laughed.  Ali left me at the hostel guardhouse and went off to find the clubs he was sure must exist.  It was still early so I went for a walk. A gang of small children kicked a soccer ball along the lane.  To make a little extra money for the family, school girls sold candy and stationery, through house windows while they did their homework, or rented out minutes on the family phone.
A hard rain fell during the night.  In the morning, a huge dump truck backed up to our building and disgorged a great heap of black coal.  It was much colder this morning, the chill of Siberia’s winter all too near.  I bought a couple of steamed buns and an apple, through one of the windows along the lane and went off in search of the School of Acupuncture, said to be a short distance to the north.
When I’d walked several hundred yards, I pulled out my address card and asked a dozen people.  No one had a clue.  At last, in a clinic of unknown purpose, the man in charge sent me away with a little girl.  She took me around the corner and into another hospital.  Dr. Yang emerged from behind a white curtain, wearing rubber gloves, and we exchanged introductions.  Dignified and confident, he read my card and nodded understanding, then swung his arm directing me to walk that way.  The little girl had gone.
I went out again and through a long series of inner courtyards where hundreds of bicycles were parked.  Soon, despair crept over me.  This was useless.  I bought a cold drink from a machine and sat on a wood bench, feeling frustrated.  A girl in blue parked her bike and locked it.  I held out my address card.  She nodded then assured me with a soft voice that the place I wanted was just through that gate ahead.  And indeed it was. The clinic’s sign in English was three inches high and hidden by a bush.  Not a hundred yards north of the guardhouse where I’d begun, I walked into a building I’d passed by earlier, the School of Acupuncture.
A square-faced woman with big glasses sat behind a window in the entry hall.  She was reading my card when a voice behind me said, “Hello.”  I turned and was surprised to see a large blond woman and a slender, hopeful-looking Latina.  With them was a quick-moving local lady about forty.  All wore white lab coats.  The blond said,  “You speak English?  Come along with us.  We can talk.”
In your own language you trade vast amounts of information in moments.  By the time we’d climbed the dirty concrete steps to the third floor, I’d learned the slim woman was Sara Mendez from UCLA Medical School.  The blond was Hadda, an Icelandic doctor married to the Dutch ambassador to China.  Both were studying here to add Chinese methods to their western medical repertoire.  The Chinese woman was Goh Bing See, acupuncture teacher at the institute.  If I wanted to follow them around, Dr. Goh said she could give me a treatment before lunch.  I’d expected to wait several days for an appointment.  Like a child offered promises of acrobats and ice cream, I tagged along, humbled by gratitude and enlarged by the wonder of my good luck.
The clinic seemed to operate without a schedule or appointments.  All appeared chaotic, without structure.  Waiting people called out to Dr. Goh and other staff as they passed.  Various medical types strutted around in white coats, changing direction on a whim.  People went in and out of rooms with open doors, talking with those in beds or sharing food and tea.  An old woman swung her long rag mop left and right as she backed toward us along a dim hall lined with empty straight wood chairs.  Dr. Goh consulted with Dr. Chan and they decided to go down to the second floor.  Baffled, I went along, asking Hadda and Sara about their course of study here, what motivated them, what they were learning.  We entered a large ward with tall windows opening to the bicycle court where I’d had the cold drink.
A boy of about ten sat on a bed, his anxious parents standing beside him.  Dr. Goh introduced herself and began asking the boy questions, which the father answered for him.  The boy, in a hospital gown, was asked to stand up.  His leg appeared to be paralyzed.  His mother looked distraught, his father serious.  Dr. Goh squeezed the leg in several places, then his arms and the other leg.  She helped the boy lie facedown on the examining table.  His gown opened, revealing his brand new green jockey shorts.  Soon, Dr. Goh had placed a large number of needles into the boy’s flesh and moved on to the next patient. The boy’s parents hovered near their child, the one child permitted them, both too tense to sit down.
The next patient was an elderly man.  He showed how he could hardly move his stiff, arthritic hands.  He lay on his back, hands at his side, while the needles went in.  Next was a girl with crossed eyes and breathing problems.  She appeared retarded.  The mother seemed ashamed of her incoherent answers.  I sat down to rest my back and observe while Dr. Goh took care of several more people.
I looked around.  The patients were clean and neat and clearly filled with belief and trust.  True, their shoes were worn and dull and women’s purses looked beat up by hard use.  Hairstyles were simple, the greatest extravagance being an occasional perm among young girls without make up, girls who proudly wore their plaid shirts with flowered skirts.
Chinese are proud of their traditions, proud of four millennia of experience in what is of practical value for healing.  Dr. Goh seemed to me a mix of the best of east and west, efficient and quick, witty and knowledgeable as she worked.  Hadda and Sara followed her every word, moving through the ward.
As I watched in surprise, the little boy stood and walked normally.  The old man clenched his hands, grinning at the improvement.  I sensed I could trust this woman.  But I vowed I was not going to be fooled by some faith healing ritual.  Then it was my turn.
I lay back.  The needles went in almost unfelt.  Dr. Goh asked how I was doing, patted my hand like a sister and moved on.  I lay there about half an hour, awake and content, not expecting much.  Then the doctor returned and took the needles out.  That was all.  I rose and put on my shoes. The treatment was over.  Sara Mendez asked if I could notice anything.  I took a deep breath, stretched my back.  “I feel better than I have in months.”
Two days later, full of energy and renewed hope, I walked all around the immense Forbidden City with no pain.  The day after, with a friend of my son’s, I clambered on the Great Wall and visited the Temple of Heaven.  My back didn’t hurt.  I joined friends for Peking Duck and Mongolian Hot Pot, perused the Russian fur market and wonderful art shops in the oldest parts of the city then visited hotels that offered the newest of the new.  My back held up.
It had been a long journey, but at its end I felt a glow of contentment.  One can’t ever be good as new, but I was better.  At great effort, the goal had been won and along with it an adventure.   Once home again, I’d seek out regular acupuncture treatments.


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