Friday, September 7

Knowing too much

When MTH took his first trip to China, a couple of years before we moved here, he got off the airplane, got in a taxi, and was driven just out into the peri-airport limbo, when his driver turned around, looked at his passenger, and shrugged.  Apparently, he had not understood when MTH gave his destination in English, and had thought it unwise to make this clear until he had driven far enough to eliminate the competition.  A phone call to the hotel solved the problem, of course, but the danger inherent in a complete lack of communication struck us both as something to be avoided in the future, so we set about learning Chinese.

What I didn’t realize was that knowing Chinese--or knowing only a little Chinese, which is where I find myself now--can be just as harrowing.  Take my communications with the ayi, for instance.  It’s important to know that I am flummoxed by the ayi in general.  Nothing in my prior life prepared me to have a servant; it is not something I ever once dreamed of.  This may surprise those of you who have witnessed the astonishing disarray of any of my living quarters, but it’s consistent--I think so little about cleaning that it never occurred to me to imagine having someone do it for me. 

But now I find myself with a woman who is in the house 25 hours a week, basically at my beck and call.  I don’t do any becking or calling--I don’t know how.  I just let her do her thing, and try to gloss over any imperfections the rest of the family identifies.  Sure, the Princess thinks she cooks too much fish, the Rooster would love it if she put stuff back in the same place all the time, and MTH has some spots--invisible to me--that he thinks could be cleaner.  But whenever I suggest that a complaining family member directly suggest an adjustment to the ayi, their volume goes way down, and they quickly find a reason they need to be in a different room.  I sympathize with them; I cannot bring myself to make even the smallest request--it seems so gauche or ungrateful, or just…too damn hard, without access to the verbal softeners and diffusers I need to be comfortable.

What’s funny is that the ayi doesn’t have the same qualms.  Well, maybe she does, but she gets over them in a way I’ve become very envious of.  It started when she realized that I was able to understand her well enough to grasp that the other family she worked for, in the mornings, was letting her go.  Would I be able to help find a new job?  That was easy enough; right around the same time a sort-of friend of mine advertised on an online community of ex-pat moms that I follow, and now she works for both families.

By then, though, the ayi, who had never used a computer before, had started to understand the power of the internet, and immediately began to--via me--harness it.  This, too, was no big deal.  Every once in a while she would come in to the office as I was working on the computer, and ask me “taitai, ni xianzai mang bu mang?”  Which means, depending on translation, “Ma’am, are you busy?” “Lady, are you currently occupied?” or “Boss lady, got a sec?”  It bothers me to not know which one it is, because it would allow me to judge her properly.  But in the end, the answer is that I am never so busy that I haven’t clicked on and viewed least one picture of a cute fuzzy animal on the internet, and I do think that helping another human being out is more important than playing online scrabble, if not always more satisfying.  So I tell her I’m not, and then she gives me the name of one of her friends who is looking for work, and I post it on the Shanghai Mama site. 

Two days ago, though, she asked if I was busy, I said no, and she launched into a tale that my Chinese is definitely not ready for.  Halfway through, she started to cry, which made it even harder to understand, but what I got from her is this:

Once upon a time, when she was just out of high school, the ayi fell in love.  Her paramour wanted to marry her, but her grandmother said that she could not get married, because her older cousin was not yet married, and how would that look? 

I did not understand several sentences after that, but it appears that for some reason waiting or expediting the acquisition of a suitable match for the cousin were not workable options.  Later, both the ayi and her sometime sweetheart married different people.  Whether the original beloved would have been a good match or not is up for debate, but it turns out that the man the ayi married in his stead was not--she has shown me her scars. 

She finally got successfully divorced a few months ago, and you could see the change in her--she appeared so much more relaxed and happy and energized.  She used that newfound energy, apparently, to go about tracking down her high school sweetheart.  How to do that in a country where there are only a couple hundred surnames, people rarely go by their first name, and basically everyone is in the process of moving or has just moved from a rural area to an urban area, is beyond me.  But track him down she did, and, while we were in the US, she went to go see him.  He lives a couple of hours away by plane, and I helped her buy her first airline ticket before we left (My performance on this, as on so many of my proudest China accomplishments, turned out to be less than perfect.  When she came back she showed me a bunch of pictures she’d taken from the airplane window, apparently by leaning across two people’s seats, since I’d failed to realize that obviously someone on their first flight EVER would prefer a window seat.).

She tells me she had a wonderful time, and she returned with an ipad that may or may not have been a gift from her long-lost love.  But she also told me he’s still married, although, she says…well, I’m not sure what she said.  I think it translates as something like “loveless marriage,” but it might have been “she’s a witch” or even “he could do better.”  Whatever it was, it was presented as a mitigating factor. 

I asked her if he could ever move here, she said no.  I asked her if she could ever move there, she said no.  I had to speak out.   “But I want you have better man!  Man without wife, man who lives in Shanghai!” I said.  And then she began to cry for real, and she said “for me, there is no other man.  I have been waiting 30 years for this man!  How could I look for another man?”  And that’s when I wished, just for a moment, that I was stranded in a taxi in an unknown city with a driver I couldn’t speak to.  

Wednesday, September 5

In case of emergency...

Yesterday, I went to speak to a group at the German Chamber of Commerce.  I haven’t seen that many blonde people in one room I was last in Iowa, but these were notably svelter, and with sharper glasses.  I was there to tell them what to do in case an emergency befell them in China. 

Because I’m an ER doctor, you can kind of see why they would think I would be a good person to give this talk.  But the logic doesn’t really hold up: I have literally never witnessed an emergency outside of the ER.  Well, unless you count the lady I saw lying in the street last month, just after she’d been hit by a car.  But at that time, I did exactly what the untrained bystanders were doing--told her to hold still and waited for the ambulance.  When they arrived I was able to provide a little information for them, since she spoke only Spanish and they didn’t, but let’s face it--they could have gotten her on a gurney without knowing how old she was and that she had hypertension and diabetes.  If she had been gushing blood and in cardiac arrest with low blood sugar, I couldn’t have done much more before the EMT’s arrival, certainly nothing more than anyone who has taken a CPR class is trained to do.  The fact is that, without our equipment, doctors are about as much use in emergency as a pathology textbook, and possibly less so, since you might at least be able to use the book to fashion a splint. 

But at any rate, the MD and my job give me a bit of credibility, and so, despite the fact that I haven’t done any of these things, I told them to:  get a first aid kit, make a phone list, get to know the neighbors, take a CPR class, know where the closest local hospital is in case you have a true life-threatening emergency and live on the far side of town (otherwise, of course, come visit us and our fresh-faced English-speaking staff at the hospital whose logo was prominently displayed in the mandated PowerPoint template I was using), think hard about whether an ambulance will really add much to their transport over a taxi, and keep a wad of cash around. 

It was, of course, the last two that got the group going.  Regarding the cash, they asked the next logical question about quantity.  I found it both impolitic and imprecise to answer “as much as you can afford to lose,” and punted to my boss, there at my side wearing his own slick glasses.  “Around 20,000 RMB” he said, without missing a beat.  That’s about $3000, and seemed as good a guess as any, until I started trying to imagine actually taking three thousand of my own dollars out of commission and leaving them on a shelf (or as he suggested, in a safe purchased for this sole purpose) in my house just in case some day someone in the family has such a severe and sudden illness that no one is able to get to the ATM.  I then tried to imagine scrambling to recall the combination to said safe, likely having gathered several years’ worth of dust by then, during that same emergency.  The Germans twisted the knife by asking, if they were to go sight-seeing to another area of China, were they really supposed to carry that kind of cash with them?  Which, I think, is the point when the intrinsic silliness of an American ER doctor answering such questions hit us all, and I moved on to the next imponderable.

One of the first things you notice after you move here is the tremendous amount of honking.   Chinese people seem to consider honking a mandatory part of driving, like checking your rear-view mirrors or using your turn signal, and they do it with the same regularity recommended for those commendable habits.  The second thing you notice is the lack of sirens amid the cacophony.  I don’t think I’ve heard a police, ambulance, or fire siren out my window in the entire time I’ve been here.  And I’d notice if there were, since it would be there for a while--the drivers in a typical Shanghai traffic snarl would be unlikely to be able to pull over, even if they were inclined to. 

Shanghai does have ambulances, though, and each one is supposed to be manned with a driver, a technician, and a doctor, which would make them apparently--if not in fact-- better staffed than US ambulances, as ours don’t generally carry doctors.  It wouldn’t, however, make them better-staffed than German ambulances, which all have doctors.  And all doctors are not created equal.  When I graduated medical school, I was technically a “doctor.”  I had done a full undergraduate degree and a full course of medical school, and had MD after my name.  But you wouldn’t have wanted me riding along in your ambulance, directing your resuscitative care.  It took another year of residency training before I was even licensed to prescribe drugs, and three more after that before I was released into the world to practice on my own.  In Germany it’s roughly the same. 

In China, however, high school graduates go to university for five years, and then they’re doctors.  Sure, they have to go work at a hospital for one to three years after that, which period sort of resembles a western residency program (or, more accurately, half of one), but from what I hear, the new graduates need to apprentice themselves directly to someone at that hospital, constantly demand that person’s attention, and learn to do things exactly that person’s way.  There is no formal curriculum, and no testing along the way until the very end, when they sit a licensing examination.  So even if it’s not until then that newly-minted doctors are allowed to staff an ambulance, if one were to happen to call one, and it actually arrived, you’d likely to be facing a worn-out kid familiar with only one way of doing things, manning a possibly ill-equipped van whose arrival-time was as dependent on the vagaries of traffic as any other vehicle’s.  Whereas, outside many of the compounds the expats live in, there is a line of seasoned taxi drivers waiting to whisk you away, any one of whom may actually know the quickest route to the nearest hospital. 

This puts anyone requiring transport to the hospital on the horns of a genuine dilemma.  The Germans asked me which to choose, but my time was almost up, and I was done pretending to have the answers, so I have them the same look I gave the Princess recently, when she asked me if she should choose the Barbie backpack or the anime girls one.  It’s my “You’re on your own, kiddo!” one, which has never been greeted with anything but head-shaking amazement at my unhelpfulness.  This was no exception.