The phone rang at 8:30 am. I nearly jumped out of my skin.
No one calls me. No one ever calls me. Okay, I exaggerate. Hardly anyone ever calls me. I’m a foreigner with zero foreign friends and my Chinese buddies know I prefer texting as it’s easier to understand and allows me to eschew unnecessary conversations. The Provincial Center for Extremely Cruel Unusual Punishment Torture and Assassination where I’m supposed to be employed knows that if I see a strange number (or any number actually) I will refuse to pick up the phone. I’m weird like that.
I prefer that people make an appointment with me via text or email. Prima donna that I am.
I admit. I’m a little difficult. Just a tad. I am not however without reason. Too often the Center will call with some cockamamie scheme thrown together at the last minute and expect me to help pull it off (throw a foreigner in there and it will suddenly gain a skin of respectability). Luckily I’ve gained the notoriety for saying, and I quote, “No thank you. I prefer not to.” This phrase can save you much trauma and angst.
This, by the way, is not my stroke of genius. I totally lifted this strategy from the main protagonist of this amazing, witty, poignant, absolutely brilliant and of course therefore cancelled TV show. The main character was a true sister-in-arms, a misanthrope extraordinaire. I loved her dearly even though she was dead. Literally.
“Zen, we need you to poison the water table in an outlying village that is complaining about local corruption.”
“No thank you. I prefer not to.”
“Zen, we’d like you to provide enhanced interrogation of a group of troublesome university students.”
“No thank you. I prefer not to.”
It may seem that I am just being unusually cantankerous and recalcitrant (to throw a few five-dollar words at it) but I am not without my reasons. Most of the time the Center asks me to do things outside my job description and worse they do things without sufficient preparation or planning. And I am not unable nor unwilling to fly by the seat of my pants (just ask any of my lovers,…uh former lovers) it’s just that it most often comes to no good. So why do it? Just plan the op well and get it done right.
Sadly, our nefarious deals and machinations result in more chaos and misery than intended. You know that shit rubs off on you. There’s only so much pandemonium a man can take. Despite the dark work of my particular vocation, there is another sector of human activity that causes even more misery and trauma than we ever could, intentionally or otherwise.
It was not the Center calling me. It was DaGang, one of the guys from my hockey team. Damn. I did not want to pick up the phone. I looked at my cell phone vibrating on my desk like someone who expected buttery waffles and instead found a black mamba coiled on his breakfast plate.
The phone stopped. I breathed a sigh of relief. Then it rang again. Damn!
“喂? DaGang? What’s up?” I said on tenterhooks.
“喂, Хорошо?” (Хорошо is my Russian nickname, which could be construed as being laudatory or sarcastic, depending how well or how poorly I played.)
“I’ll pick you up downstairs in ten minutes.” Despite my protests, DaGang insisted. He was taking me to the Hospital.
When is a visit to the hospital ever fun? Does anyone ever plan a hospital visit on their day off? No. Doctors are as bad as dentists.
On the drive over I told DaGang exactly what would happen and exactly what the doctor would recommend. Nowadays who needs doctors? You can just google your problem and presto: instant free diagnosis and prognosis. The hell with doctors. I hate ’em and the whole pseudo-health care establishment. Bastards.
I would have to go through the motions, though. One of the guys on our hockey team just happens to be a bone guy. I don’t how good of a doctor he is, but I had to admit on the ice he was an unholy terror. He barreled down the ice like an express train and God help whoever got in his way. I was wondering if he doctored the same way he played hockey.
We went to some dirty second-rate clinic on Heping Road near the Provincial government. I didn’t have to fill out the reams of paperwork nor stand in queue. Today I had 关系 (guānxī). Dagang and I had it and the other shleps standing in line didn’t. Sucks to be them. We blew past admitting and walked straight down to Doctor Wang’s consultation office.
It’s always jarring to see someone in another context. I was used to seeing Doctor Wang in hockey gear, broad shoulders made broader by shoulder pads and square head covered by helmet and face shield. Now, instead of swooping down ice and knocking the shit out of someone, he was standing very cool and phlegmatic in proverbial white lab coat, toting a clipboard with stethoscope draped around his thick neck. Incongruous to the extreme as if today he decided to go trick-or-treating and wear a doctor’s getup.
He apologized for seeing me in this small humble office (i.e. ratty tatty clinic) and asked me to strip down in order for him to perform the basic tests on my injured knee. As usual no one closed the door to the office and passersby could peek in at the special guest.
I knew that this would be the case and prepared ahead of time. I wore ski pants that were easy to shuck off and long athletic (clean) undershorts so I wouldn’t get too embarrassed when I would inevitably have to disrobe in front of complete strangers. Being one of the few foreigners in this remote province, I inevitably attracted too much attention. Annoying to say the least. Nurses kept peeking in to get a look at me. Why? I have no idea. They’re nurses. You’d think they had had anatomy class. As if my medial collateral ligament were somehow different than a Chinese person’s.
Doctor Wang did the touchy-feely thing: “Does it hurt when I press here?” “Yes.” “How about here?” “Hell yes!” “How about when I do this?” My face contorted into a mask of a pain. “Yup. Looks like you have an injured MCL. We’ll have to give you an MRI.” Oh really?
I glared at DaGang with a frosty I-told-you-so look.
I really didn’t want any help. I wanted to handle all of this by myself. I am very independent. I knew I could get myself to the clinic and negotiate the labyrinthine halls of the Chinese hospital without assistance. I wouldn’t even ask my dear Hobbit to come along. In fact, I specifically told her I would not need her help. I find that I am more linear and time-efficient than my Chinese wife and Chinese friends. I can elbow my way to the front of a queue with the best of Chinese citizens. Moreover, I did not want to disrupt their plans. Hobbit was in the middle of grading end-of-semester exams. DaGang was a detective. Surely he had criminals to chase down? And Doctor Wang without a doubt had more pressing cases than my sprained MCL. I didn’t need anyone’s help. I’m ungrateful like that.
Doctor Wang took me to the recently remodeled Chinese Medicine Medical University. When I say Chinese Medicine, I mean in contrast to Western Medicine (although it turns out that this beautiful complex actually provides both Eastern and Western treatments–your choice). Since it was ligament damage, I figured we’d have to schedule an MRI on my MCL, in Chinese 核磁共振成像 hécí gòngzhèn chéngxiàng and 内侧副韧带 nèicè fùrèndài respectively just in case you ever need it. It’s a mouthful just like most medical scientific terms.
Since I was with DaGang and Doctor Wang however, I was given the VIP treatment (guānxī in action). They shoved right to the front of all the various queues or walked in through the back door and told the young nurses what we needed. We went from one room to the next and took care of everything lickety-split. All the other patients sitting and standing in a desperate crowd waiting their turn gave me the stink eye and of course who could blame them. I was perfectly willing to sit with the plebes all day long waiting for treatment, but this red carpet treatment was thrust upon me. I felt a pang of guilt. I did. Seriously.
I often reap the benefits of being a foreigner in China, it’s true. I get treated much differently than the regular Chinese variant of Joe the Plumber. I do try in my defense to move along in life and society like any other lowly-paid assassin-slash-torturer, but, because I am american, I do get deferential treatment.
On the hockey team I get even better treatment because I am a goalie…rather, I should say, I am the goalie. Since there are no people my age backstopping the net with any modicum of skill and passion. So, the guys really want and need me. Hence today’s fun outing to the hospital.
Having had many an MRI performed in the States, I was really surprised at how quick and efficient the Chinese hospital was. Usually an MRI takes quite some time to schedule in the States and then the procedure itself can last an hour or longer. But these guys got me done in minutes. I don’t know if this is because huge population coupled with limited resources results in rapid-fire examination/treatment or because I was a special guest, but in minutes I am done.
Doctor Wang confirms again what I had already told DaGang in the car on the way over here. There was nothing for it: I would need rest, about six weeks worth in order for my knee to heal. In addition, there were other tears all over my knee. My Lateral Collateral Ligament was also damaged and there was fluid build-up inside in the knee. In other words, playing goalie at my age is chewing up my knees something awful. But I knew all that already.
This is awkward for everyone. The guys always press me to play even when I get injured. It sucks not having a goalie. So I comply. I love the game and hate leaving them in the lurch. But even I knew I ought to rest a few weeks or this would only get worse.
We agree that I would continue playing but take it easy and not try so hard. You know, just stand there. Right. As if. I’m not the kind of guy to do anything 马马虎虎 mǎmǎhūhū. When I do something it’s balls to the wall. Basically I was fucked.
It’s ironic but typical of my life. My game had stepped up and so I had recently purchased–in fact for the first time in my life–a pair of goalie pads, which are in fact quite expensive. They were a sweet pair of Reebok 18K intermediate goalie pads that I got for a steep discount on goaliemonkey-dot-com. After I got them, I turned into the Great Wall of China. I was playing like a pro, sliding post to post, gobbling up shots, and stonewalling breakaways. A few Mongols got past me, but nothing else. For the first time in my life, I felt that I was doing what I was meant to do. I had been transformed into a goalie god by these beautiful pads.
And then, when I went down into the splits (the Chinese splits ironically enough) to block a shot, I felt my left knee tear. I knew as soon as it happened I was screwed. There was no way this was a simple case of ice and heat, two days of rest, and jump back in the saddle. If I had only flexed that left thigh muscle and protected my knee, it might not have torn. But I was too…I don’t know. Icarus. Schleprock. Achilles. Pick your trope.
Anyway, I had known ahead of time what was the dealie-o but dreaded getting the confirmation. I did leave however impressed with my treatment. The guys cared about me, even if only because goalies are a precious commodity. And I did breeze through these procedures rather than spend days or even weeks to get an answer, which is what usually happens when I have to take Hobbit or her son for some kind of medical/dental appointment. It was actually nice to not have to wait. I only had to pay 900 rmb for the MRI, which was only fair. MRIs are not cheap. Doctor Wang reviewed the MRI on the spot and gave me his prognosis immediately. Everyone else would have had to wait a few days at a minimum.
Quite a contrast to the way I get treated back home in america.
Back home I am not a rockstar. I’m just one of unwashed millions eking out an existence. Moreover, health care was a luxury I rarely could afford on a teacher’s salary. Of course, my father would say that I chose not to afford it. I chose not to pay for medical insurance. Yeah, it was my choice. I could either be broke all the time, or keep what would have gone to pay for medical insurance as pocket money and travel money. Hmm. Tough choice that one. I think I’ll choose to keep those few hundred dollars in premium per month and have a life.
There was one time however when my rich father did manage to get me preferential treatment for an ailment that had potential to be something life-threatening. The incident is worth recounting here briefly.
This is not easy to relate so please bear with me.
My then-girlfriend found a growth on my body. Please do not ask me how she found it; she just did. Finding what seemed to be a tumorous growth is as anyone can imagine extremely alarming. At that time I was in my twenties, still in college. I didn’t know what to do. I told my father about it and he happened to know a guy who knew a guy. This guy was supposed to be one of the top specialists if not the TOP specialist in his field. To make a long story short, my father managed to get me an appointment with this genius.
I was to say the least intimidated. My father was an international businessman, quite used to rubbing elbows with the rich and powerful. I was never used to those rarefied heights. I was used to free clinics for the indigent. Not swanky offices with plush leather chairs and mahogany paneled walls where the gorgeous hostess offered you a cappuccino while you waited. I remember feeling so out of place dressed in a simple short-sleeved shirt and jeans.
“The doctor will see you now.”
Swallow. What to expect? What to expect?
The doctor was a short guy–even shorter than me–Jordanian, maybe Saudi, whatever, Middle Eastern. He was thin with a hatchet face and had dusky skin and black, black piercing eyes.
“So, I hear you have a…growth?” He spoke with a slight accent and strangely his accent was slightly German, of all things. Middle Eastern doctor with Berlin accent? Rumbling in my subconscious, visions of Mengele.
“Don’t waste my time. I am very busy. I have agreed to do this as a favor. Please drop your trousers. I need to examine you. Quickly.”
Motherfucker. I took a deep breath and dropped ’em. Doctor Middle-Eastern Mengele snapped on a pair of powder blue latex gloves. He glanced down at me with an evil deprecating sneer. That’s just great. Add insult to injury. He stepped forward.
“Raise the member out of the way.”
“Huh? Oh yeah, of course.”
He snatched up my poor little sack and stretched it out like it was Silly Putty. I didn’t think human skin could stretch that far, especially human skin on that part of the body. I felt like he was trying to pull out the skin and put it over my head. I was literally stunned with pain. I felt a bolt of electric pain shoot from my nether region straight up my spine and out the top of my skull. There wasn’t even time to scream. My eyes rolled back in my skull. I had no air in my lungs and stood there transfixed as if pegged to the earth with an iron spike.
“Stay still!” he spat at me angrily. He forced my poor little brothers through the skin with one hand and with the other he was pushing the curlie-cues aside and peering intently at the red and blue veins standing out and pulsating in protest at this rough treatment. “Hmm,” he said.
Agonizing pain. Somehow, he was able to roll my boys around like they were Chinese relaxation balls. “Hmm. Yes. I see. I see.” Excruciating pain.
Probably he only examined them for a few seconds, but, thank you Einstein, time is relative and it felt like he was manhandling them for eons. When he let go, I swear the sack snapped back into position, but it hung lower, much lower than before. They had turned indignant-red and began to swell. My nerves were on fire and I was incapable of intelligible speech.
“Go on, get dressed.”
Slowly, tenderly I pulled my drawers and jeans back on and fastened my belt. He’s only trying to help me. He’s only trying to help me. It’s not worth it. Murder in Texas will get you the death penalty. Again the supercilious scornful look.
“The organ is being destroyed. The growth is a tumor, nonmalignant but restricting blood flow, and if left untreated will eventually cause the organ to shrivel and die. I recommend immediate surgery. It will cost thirty-two thousand dollars.” He snapped off the powder blue gloves with the same precise movements with which he put them on. He gave me one last slow contemptuous look, up and down, down and up. “You may see the nurse to schedule the procedure now,” and he left the room.
Just like that, I was dismissed. A Vision of putrid fruit rotting on withered limbs searing my mind like a branding iron.
My father was shocked to see me come out so soon. “That’s it? You’re done? So quick! What? What’s with that funny look?”
He pressed me for the details. I mumbled what Doctor Arabian Moreau had said to me.
“Well, you have to get it done then.”
“I don’t…I don’t have that kind of money. What the hell am I going to do?”
“If the doctor says you need surgery then that’s what you should do.” My father was pulling me over to the counter. For some reason, my feet were not obeying. They were heading in the direction of the elevator.
“Come back here! How are you going to get home without a car?”
I had to get out of there. I just felt like it was wrong. It was all wrong. I convinced my father that I needed a second opinion. I appreciated that he got me this super-difficult to obtain consultation from the World’s foremost authority on male thingie-issues, but something deep down told me to slow my roll and think things through.
I’m glad I did get that second opinion, which diverged night and day from Doctor Chopchopnow. I had to go to a clinic for the poor and wait quite some time, but the doctor confirmed that the “growth” was indeed a varicocele as diagnosed, but it was very small and really should only be monitored to insure that it does not grow. If it did, then it was a minor outpatient procedure. Not thirty-two grand.
Eventually, years later, I did have the procedure done, but not because that little pebble had grown into a pus-filled, baseball-sized tumor. Rather, the bitch du jour “didn’t like the way it felt” and thought I ought to have it removed. “Better to be safe than sorry.” Naturally, after I had it done, we broke up.
But that is a story for another day. For now, beware of guānxī my brothers and sisters! One never knows where it will lead you. But most of all, if a doctor with overbearing demeanor and cold rough hands asks you to drop ’em, you just look that bastard in the eye and say, “No thank you. I prefer not to.”