“Hong Yan! Hong Yan! … Hong Yaaaaaaaan!”
Mother’s yelling finally reaches my ears through the closed door. It comes from the sitting-room where she stays. She sounds desperate and a bit angry. I guess she has been calling me for quite a while.
Quickly getting up, I go to see what the matter is. Mother is lying on the wide sofa which is her bed now.
“What’s wrong? What happened?” There appears to be no fire hazard nor any sign of emergency.
“I have been calling you for ten minutes and you were sleeping like a log!” Mother is indeed angry, but her anger is carefully measured. It is 7am.
Mother got up too suddenly and fell back after just seconds of dizziness. Now she can’t move any more. Her back is hurt. Seventy-three years old, she still feels and acts as if she was thirty.
She couldn’t wake me up, so she called Auntie Lin, her best friend. Lin will call back soon.
“Why call HER?” I ask Mother. Her friend is not a doctor nor a nurse, and she has no ambulance.
Twenty minutes later, Auntie Lin rings back.
“Xiao Yan, the hospitals aren’t open yet!” , I still can hear her gasping over the phone from climbing up the endless stairs of the seven stories in her building, “ There was even no one to talk to!”
“No problem. I am here now and please go back to sleep. I will takeover. Thank you so much!”.
I felt sorry for Auntie Lin to be disturbed for nothing this early in the morning. I can’t understand why Mother sent her to a hospital which never provides doctor visits in the first place, instead of sending for an ambulance which has more or less trained personnel and better-than-nothing equipment. All she has to do is simply to dial less numbers as 120.
A few hours later, Mother is in the hospital where they find she has three cracked spinal-bones. Since 2008, living in the ward once a year has become a routine for her because of her osteoporosis problems.
Having two children is not any better than having none for my parents. They live in a country with no institutions nor trustworthy attending system to take care of them at their old age. To their great expectations, I ended up far away in Montreal not intending to move back to pay my filial piety, and my brother quit his doctor’s job against their wish to become an independent musician who is still roaming around China. We are one of a kind with no complete family, home town nor countries except for my freedom and his guitar.
Finally , my brother is settling down in Chengdu. It is a city as smoggy as Beijing but with a finer culture that nurtures better its neglected and struggling musicians. His resolution induces Mother’s decision to move.
Mother is such a strong willed and effective woman, that, at age seventy-three, she dares to uproot herself a second time to follow the hope and comfort of her old age. Earlier, together with Dad, she went to Chengdu, traveling through the grey concrete forest of skyscrapers, looking for their new home. They bought a condo finally on the scary twenty-fourth floor in a humongous dark grey building, and even settled the renovation company.
The contract signed, they came back to Kunming.
Mother has the sharp sense of a dog, she sniffed something rotten the moment she entered the apartment. She suspected that it was from the fridge. Indeed, when the freezer door was opened only a thin hair, a redolent corpse stench from the defrosted and decomposed meat surged out, suffocating her breath and stinging her eyes so badly that she almost fell down onto the floor. Hardly had she any moment of resting from the travel, did she start cleaning it herself immediately. Frequent bending down and stretching up her body put enough weight for a fragile camel to fall.
With her in the hospital, my parents decide that Father will go to Chengdu for the supervision, and I will stay behind to look after the sick tiger.
Father was born into an intellectual family which Chairman Mao labelled in his Cultural Revolution as subjects to re-education. He used to have “Four lazy limbs with a head not knowing the differences between the five grains” (“四体不勤, 五谷不分”）, a term used to describe intellectuals in The Cultural Revolution, but now, he can do many things after decades of rough life of starvation and torture, such as frying eggs with tomatoes. Mother’s “soft and hard” measures have always helped as well. Though the common sense from his management experiences and skills in managing schools and being the Superintendent Department of the City Educational Bureau surely gives him certain confidence, but to Mother, such an arrangement is rather of a reluctant solution than of any trust.
I think I should be right on spot to display my expertise, because I dealt with contractors and workers and even did many renovations myself for a decade in Montreal. But there is no one else close to help Mother. Since the job of attendants in hospitals has been gradually “released” to first daughter, sons, other family members and remote relatives, and household chores and looking after sick parents is patented for women, it’s all the more natural that I landed on it.
Though untrained, neither with experience at all, I AM the Chinese daughter who would definitely respond to every call better than anyone irrelevant, even than those professionals; I Am the one who can demonstrate best the Chinese Filial Piety Culture versus that of the Irrelevant Community Indifference. I AM the sex role that absolutely carries the important duty to Mother’s health and will. It would be absolutely unacceptable and definitely weird to hire a stranger for the job to spare me for the construction supervision, but this sex role for women in the developed western countries has become relatively irrelevant to certain professions, such as those of family chores and care-taking.
The hospital is always full. Mother is given a bed just outside the elevator with a set of windows on the right. Old newspapers are glued on the lower window panes to block the oppressive daytime light. Some windows are ajar and others are wide open.
The cold December wind is cunning, as poisonous gas suffusing through gaps, sneaking into the corridor and infiltrating the patients’ frozen blood and bones. I found a creaky and shaky wind screen and put it in front of my mother’s bed to block the peeping eyes of passing patients and their families. The beautiful metal “ding” sound breaks up the serious ambiance of elaborate quietness in the muffled and indistinguishable collective footsteps .
A few hours pass and here comes Mother’s ex-daughter-in-law. Mother’s face lights up as if she had suddenly recovered. She tries to sit up to welcome her and thank her for the expected yet indebting visit. With the intervention of our distinguished visitor, though a doctor in another department, things become different. Fifteen minutes later, Mother is put in a “proper” ward with only four-beds. Even if we have to live with three male patients, we couldn’t care that much. It is presumably better to be in a male ward than to be on the cold and exposed bed No.2 of “the corridor ward”.
Time struggles to move between seconds, like an old farmer woman pushing the traditional two-piece heavy soy bean grinder. Instead of a fragrant aroma from the crushed soya beans, there oozes out a weird mixture of body odour, a smell of cheap food, and some pungent medical formalin, brewed up with the stinky discharged faeces from the man on the neighbouring bed.
The man’s five spinal bones were fractured in a car accident, caused by his heart failure while driving. He ends up lying on bed, barely able to move his two hands. Helplessly, he watches the doctors giving prescriptions, nurses busy in and out, going through the injections of four plastic bags of white and yellow juice into his body. His quiet and patient wife carries up a warm cup of water. She gently puts the
plastic straw into the corner of his mouth. She feeds him his pills and then the food from the canteen.
A while later, she brings a defaecation device and thrusts it under the quilt. I swiftly turn away, feeling awkward. I walk out of the ward immediately, leaving poor Mother behind, bed bound. When I come back, Mother’s face is still tucked in the quilt while the man is already fast asleep like a baby after hours of crying. But the upsetting fumes definitely have stayed awake. They rest defensively and aggressively alive, torturing every sense of ours but their owner. Helped sleep also gives a man the eclipse of consciousness.
We dragged ourselves through two days and two nights in the male ward. I am not sure which ward is better, the one beside the elevator without our privacy in biting wind or the male ward in which we have to share the unanticipated, unwanted and intolerable privacy and the revolting smell of the man. The cruel fact is that we have to suffer and accept both as part of our ward life.
At last, on the third night, there is a single vacancy in a women’s ward. With the influence of our ex-in-law, the bed is kept for Mother.
We can’t help but conceal our excitement. I rush out of the men’s ward and into the women’s, lifting Mother up in the air like a towed car. She has no complaint but to follow me in her careful, rigid, small footsteps, both of us knowing very well that we will soon breathe
normally again. Thank goodness, we can also generously help the man keep his privacy and the last shreds of whatever dignity he is left
The name of the hospital has been changed several times by different administrations since its construction in 1947. It has received a wall of prizes and honours after 1994, and has been upgraded, so it is now ranked No.1 hospital among its kind.
Renovations were undertaken in 1955, and I figure that the building has been standing there ever since, without repairs or refurbishment. The Orthopaedics Department takes the whole 7th floor with wards on both sides of an interior corridor of about sixty or seventy meters long. The doctors’ office is hidden among the wards, labelled quite invisibly , but the nurse station is situated right in the middle of the corridor, with a big counter as tall as a 6 year old boy.
Prizes and honours haven’t really given the wards any different look than those in other hospitals. Being old and out of fashion it could still be clean and neat, yet things are shabby and dirty except for the emergency calling system over the head of the beds. But of course, I must not assume that the doctors and nurses are not authentic, I must not assume that the quality of treatment and service are as inferior as might be assumed from the way department and the wards look. I could be surprised in the end.
With Mother well installed, I have some time to wonder around.
The ceiling seems newer, yet a few pieces of fibre glass covers are hanging loosely over the light boxes here and there, about to fall down on our heads. On the surface of the walls under the ceiling, leaking stains made circles; coats of plaster have peeled off, some chipped and crumbled onto the floor; Rotten ceramic baseboards run along with the worn paintings and dirty ugly grout; the pale bluish white walls become off-whatever colour mixed with scratches, footprints and brownish marks of all possible murky stuff.
The wards are cold with no heating system and most of the windows refuse to close. In most wards, there are four beds, but in some, there are more. It is only in the special ward for serious cases that we see pieces of special equipment like stripes to hold broken legs or arms. But all the beds are adjustable on one end in all wards and they stand against one wall leaving the door open into an inner corridor; in between beds, there are a bed stand and a wooden chair for each bed, leaving not much room for moving around. A huge one-piece light brown curtain hangs from the high ceiling all the way down to the floor, heavy and not easy to be moved left or right.
It is two to three degrees outside, but inside, only seven to ten. Doctors, nurses and patients’ families are in padded coats, moving around like silkworm chrysalids. Patients curl up in beds with their frozen souls wrapped in cotton pyjamas, covered in light quilts and surrounded with some agitated, fluffy stuffing from inside some of the quilts flying around in the cold sunshine…
“Nah, I would just go there once in a while”, thinking so, I felt a bit relaxed.
Earlier, when Mother was assigned into the male ward, I discovered that there was a PRIVATE squat toilet for that ward! Oh, MY! How lucky we were, I marvelled! Nevertheless, the man’s wife and I had to take turns to blast the private toilet like some sand blast workers or brave fire-fighters. It still stayed a privilege under our overkilling blasting with close inspections.
My happy mind turned gloomy and complicated when we escaped to the women’s ward only to find another PRIVATE toilet. We are this much spoiled, eh?! But again I never imagined that a toilet could smell so horrible. I tried my best to make it less stinky, but without success!
I finally found the reason after spending a few days there. The two ward mates are old ladies with broken bones, one of whom also has heart problems. Their bodies are as stiff as crooked wood boards toddling like comic puppies. But their faces are not smiling like those painted jolly masks. They are more like naughty boys trapped in old zombie bodies, “unconsciously” and unwillingly shooting discharges with their asses high in the air! Every time after being used, the toilet in and around and the surrounding walls are spilled with or soaked in drugged yellowish urine!
Yet, to my greatest relief, there is a hose hanging down from the wall! It looks like a shower device, but with the head missing. The hose is coated with circles of aluminium pieces, lying on the floor like a rattle snake, stiff dead of the suffocating warm fumes!
The same yellowish and white liquids are injected into the four old ladies and the man for their similar problems, yet the tawny urine with its odour is doing a great job of showing its efficiency, merit and power: doctors and nurses are doing a great job, old ladies believe that they are taken care of, and the patients’ families are praised for their diligence and fulfilment of duty. But too bad, only the poisonous snake is steamed dead by the similar liquid transformed from the medicine!
Apart from all the “naughty” doings of the old ladies, I found another more important reason: there are no traps in the drainage system! In plumbing, the P trap is an important device for sanitation and cultural subtlety. It functions in two ways: stopping odour of the toilet from coming back and preventing sewer gases in general to enter into the building. Now you can imagine toilets without the P traps!
“ It is an old building! ” I tell myself, ” What can I expect!?”
The buildings are not new or modern. Even in The Albert Hall in London, built in Queen Victoria’s time, people continue to used the horse-feeding trench as urinating ditch, and Louis XIV and his men used to hide behind the curtains of his Versailles to defecate into pots held by his “public servants”. All the Kings and Queens of China, together with Queen Victoria and Louis XIV must have difficulties in imagining the high-end Japanese toilets that could gently flush the asses of today.
Later on, I discovered, to my surprise, that many nurses and some doctors come to use our toilet as it is right across the nurse station and not far from the doctor’s office. Their young flexible asses may have behaved properly, yet most don’t wash it at all or thoroughly before they leave. They either run away from the mess and fumes, or are too busy or too absent-minded to care thinking about their sick mothers at home.
“Shouldn’t they have their own toilets?” I wonder, ” Maybe they are too busy to run too far…” I try to find excuses for their misconduct.
I proposed to buy a bottle of disinfectant and another of perfume diffuser to make it a bit nicer and humane for the old ladies at the same time as I take care of myself. Yet eventually, my good will is too strange to the old ladies who have been so long used to this revolting smell and similar other conditions that I have to give up my idea and continue the diligent water blast. Though having a chance to be beautifully conceived, the advanced subtlety of modern society has hardly any chance to be employed. The old ladies are also too kind to allow me to waste my money on “public stuff”, too proud to admit that the bathroom is stinky worse than hell and too shy to bother more the overloaded system and their own families.
One day, a nurse told me that a brand-new building would soon be finished and put to use. I reckon that the doctors and nurses have been dreaming about their new private toilets. I am very curious if they have designed sitting toilets for our old sick ladies. Many buildings even at the Airports, the squat toilets were changed to sitting ones, then reverted to squat ones again soon after, in order to accommodate this old Chinese habit and dampen the cultural shock by the modern device that was invented in the 18th century in Britain! If no choice but to continue providing squat toilets again for the new building, I hope there will be at least P traps to keep the odour six feet under.
The healing procedure for broken bones would usually last 100 days, as the old Chinese saying tells us. This time, Mother definitely wouldn’t want to go through the long painful operation and healing procedure again. Just thinking about the dozen preparation tests that take almost two weeks would give all of us goose bumps and depression. The preparation could have worsened her situation because of going upstairs and downstairs, sitting, waiting and being squeezed in the tightly packed elevators.
So she will only accept the natural cure which means healing with time.
And time is a weird thing. It can slip away just like a snap of fingers when we are happy doing something interesting or talking to an inspiring person, yet waiting for the sickness to heal is like unweaving the fine silk threads from the cocoons (病去如抽丝 －bìng qù rú choū sī).
Time stops in the 2nd night while I lie on the bed of a ward mate who only comes in for treatments and then leaves to sleep at home nearby. The other two older ladies are very kind to me. They strongly suggest that I stay and sleep on the bed of the visiting ward member to avoid the long travels back and forth between home and hospital.
Mother needs an attendant during the night. This service has disappeared from the list of hospital service inclusion over time onto family members. A nurse would only appear at the monotonous Chinese tune calling for help, but she is not there for care taking, not in the day nor during the night.
For me to stay for the night could not only meet Mother’s night and early morning needs and guarantee the service, but it could also save the toil for me to wait for the never-arriving taxis, or crowded buses that list fifteen stops for me to count after a day’s work. And the bed is lying there with no one on it for the nights.
Our kind ex-in-law brings me a whole set of bedding with a pillow case from her department and I could literally extend and relax on the bed of the visiting mate.
Even with my clothes on, I still don’t feel quite all right simply because I didn’t get the permission. But, a few days running up and down, between home and hospital puts me out of my resistance. The old ladies’ kind and keen suggestion to stay and my unclear assumption that she wouldn’t know or care serve as the adjustment for my improper intention. I vaguely decide to stay.
Before going to bed, I set the alarm at an early time so to avoid the encounter with the ward mate when she returns from home for treatments.
She steps in at 8:30 as usual in the morning. I got up already at 7:30 and made the bed exactly the same way as it was.
The nurses would come and go, getting the routine done fast, very much like the girls in a textile factory. The sick old ladies appear to be in an extremely slow, creaky and rigid motion in the impatiently swift rhythm of the energetic young nurses. The doctors don’t really go through their usual check-ups every morning, only once a while or under the requests of the patients, leaving the wrinkled cranky dolls in the hands of the strong young women. They have no time to care about the minor problems of how the fragile bodies are shovelled from side to side, and so are they indifferent to the dry howling. I have shivers, thinking that I could be in the same situation in years to come.
Day dragged by and night comes. Certainly, I didn’t tell the ward mate that I slept on her bed so to hope that I can sleep on her bed again.
She arrives punctually at 8:30 for the treatments as usual. She turns her bed cover and pyjamas over and over as if there was something unusual. Suddenly, she cries out in an up-righteous tone:
“Who slept on my bed?”
At this moment, everybody freezes, especially me, as if I just had a bone cracked. No one dares to reply. It was not a question, but rather an assured accusation:
“My pyjamas were under the pillow yesterday before I left, and now it is on the pillow!”
I can’t be silent anymore. I have to confess my guilt.
She is so angry! Facing the wall where her bed stands, she shoots unpleasant words right on the wall and they bounce back into my ears hard as bullets.
“Aren’t too cheap to afford a folding bed!” (Subject missing: Chinese way of talking to avoid being too direct and harsh ).
A furious look piercing a calm day. Her small eyes under collapsed eyelids look like hating their own disproportionate angry muscles on her motionless wide face. They openly show that the whole world owes her everything. Now, I am the direct target of her hatred.
She dashes out of the ward to find a nurse. She complains with great passion. I follow her out with the well folded bed sheets in my hands, explaining that I didn’t use her stuff at all. But she’s still very upset and commands the nurses to change her bed immediately.
I can’t fight back because I obviously lack any good ground. I can’t persuade people to share the limited resources for my own convenience and comfort, and can’t expect an old lady to be voluntarily kind to a young healthy one like me. So I have no choice but to apologize and reassure her, well, grovel:
“Yes, yes, you are right. I should have asked for your permission”.
I am puzzled. Why didn’t I ask for her consent? Usually I have no problem asking for anything.
Indeed, asking for her permission might have not created such a ridiculous and embarrassing incident. I regret my pride as the fortress of evil and my blunt act as if her right was nothing. I also think it would have been wrong for me to ask for it anyway, because I was not sure I would have it after all. So my entrepreneurial judgement for pragmatic solution offered me a short cut.
She left earlier than usual after lunch. When her footsteps are no longer heard, the two other ladies instantly become my allies and attack her with great contempt.
“Such a small-minded mean old fart!” utters the lady on Bed no.1.
Casting a glimpse at the empty bed, she gives me the warmest embrace through her small eyes under her fallen puffy eyelids. I feel it soothing over my wrong doing.
“If it wasn’t for her mother, such a clean graceful young lady won’t even think of using that dirty bed!” she continues with empathy, and the lady on Bed no.3 nods her head frequently accompanied by her many yeses. Indeed, no one would deny such a fact.
No more bed for the night. After helping Mother with her routine and preparing things she needs in the morning, I pick up my stuff and start off to the bus station. It’s 11pm when I arrive at the bus stop after 10 minutes walk and there is, I hope, a last bus to wait for.
It’s very cold in the morning when I arrive again at the hospital. I am ONE hour LATE. The nurses are already shovelling the cranky old ladies from side to side as usual. Howling comes out from the wards as I pass through the open doors. Suddenly, I see something flying outside the wards. Yes, dancing are snow flakes big as flower petals. Wow, it snows again since the winter of 2008 in the Spring City of Kunming.
In the ward, three other ladies are already lying in bed with eyes and mouthes tightly shut, with plastic lines connected to their wrists, enduring each moment that feels no better than death. I go up to my mother’s little bed stand to get ready for fetching the breakfast.
No morning greetings, Mother turns her head away from me.
“I am not hungry!”
she squeezes these words out from her motionless lips in a sad bitter mood. Pouting, her eyes start to well up with tears. Oh, yes, I am LATE! With no greetings, no eye contact, not waiting for my reaction, she starts chatting with other ladies about suffering and dying. The air in the ward slowly swells with lamenting sighs of empathy for the unchangeable misfortune. Sinking into silence and numbness, my heart becomes depressively vigilant for me not to make any sound to spoil this great moment of her righteous strike. I feel nothing but guilty again for the second wrong thing I did.
Mother doesn’t accept the injection any more. Every time, nurses have to try four or five times to find a tiny fragile blood vessel. Each day, it gets more and more difficult. Both hands and arms are swollen with bruises from needle punctures.
The necessity for injection is routine for the hospitals. No matter for adults or children, urgent cases or ailments, injection is to be served as first aid. It is truly like a sleepy dad thrusting the rubber pacifier into his baby’s mouth whenever it cries during the night.
The importance of being hospitalized is for the injection, at least it seems so. Otherwise, why there then? Broken bones are not the cases of heart attacks or stokes, there is no danger, but it doesn’t feel all right not to go. Being in hospital surrounded by other patients, nurses, doctors and connected with the life juice of white and yellow, the problems suddenly lessen.
The doctor in charge insists in the continuation of injection after all. Mother still refuses. She says she’d rather die instead.
“If it has to continue, I will go home!” she threatens.
This makes me an ant on a hot pan. I try all I can to persuade her to follow the doctor’s instructions, but she wouldn’t listen. At my wits end, the movie “127 Hours” comes into my mind.
“I know this story! ” Mother is not surprised! Ok, then, that is even better. I don’t have to go into details.
“You see, the young man even cut off his arm in order to save his own life! You just have to be pricked a few times! They are not as painful as cutting off the arm, are they?”
After quite a moment, Mother says reluctantly and slowly: ” ok… Just for… a couple of days!” But the injection has to go on for another whole week. The nurses have to embed the needle in her skin.
After the nurses are gone, there is a moment of silence in the ward. Suddenly it is broken by a familiar coarse voice clearing its dry throat. Somewhat nervous, the voice says:
“Gu Niang ( young lady), it is very cold these days… You can sleep on my bed tonight…”
I turn around, trying to see who has spoken and what I just heard. Yes, it was the mean lady and it was meant for me. She then continues in reassurance:
“You can stay all the time you want, and, eh…and I am sorry for the other day…” she makes a great effort for pushing up a smile, yet her face is still tense and unmoved, ” …was not feeling good the other day…”
“Oh, God, please don’t apolog…” I tell her in my mind. This moment, I feel more embarrassed than when she was upset, but I reply to her cheerfully instead: ” Ah, Ok, thank you! Eh…It was me who behaved improperly…I am sorry…”
The lady on Bed no 1 throws her another quick and hidden contemptuous look while the lady in question and I are making our effort to exchange a compelled smile to each other, a smile that is absolutely not less awkward than being asked to kiss a stranger on the street. But, it is soothingly that cute and warm to melt the two inches of snow outside…
The ward mate is well enough to leave the hospital. She says good-bye to us with an awkward smile.
I reckon that she smiles so rarely that the facial muscles are reluctant to follow her usually dormant sensations. Nevertheless, I can feel her sincerity. I also understand that, among people as cold as winter, in a culture which values no one else but family members, relatives, friends and their affinity, she hardly has chances to practice smiling to irrelevant people. Even within her own home, she may not have reasons to do so from her disrespectful, ungrateful and worrying children and the naughty grand kids. Yet she does smile faintly a little. In her heart, this is already a tiny melted corner of the glacier, a prepared little garden in early spring, warm and good enough for the perennials to start budding and thriving.
I’m very glad that I can now sleep on her bed without any guilt, for as long as the bed isn’t assigned. But no sooner than I even reassure myself of my joy when a group of people swamp in: an eighty some year old lady helped by her daughter and followed by her husband and daughter-in-law . Suddenly I feel that I am missing air.
Poor old lady! She is called by her family wo ma (my mother in Yunnan dialect). She follows her daughter in her inch short steps, mouth half open with drool running down one corner. Her lips are flapping as if she was gasping for air or wanting to say something; her eyes are almost covered by her loose eyelids, leaving openings so thin that we don’t even know where she is looking at; her face looks like a piece of withered Zebra Haworthia leaf covered with dark brownish age spots so numerous and dense that the original skin is separated and squeezed into lighter spots, making it hard to tell which ones are which; beneath her heavy large torso, two pants hang empty as if there were no legs, but rather two broom sticks of a scarecrow.
Everyone is busy receiving wo ma as her family is in a great hurry to settle her into place. No one has ever paid any attention to what she wanted to say.
Wo ma falls slowly into a motionless status after the same injection tube is connected.
Coming back from getting food, I see a throng crowed around the table outside the nurse station on which a micro-wave sits. Foods can be heated and eaten in the wards or corridor. Some bring their own from home, others like me, have to get it from the wind exposed canteen selling almost everything cold.
Food smell soon starts floating in the corridor and then it creeps into the wards. It tries hard to stimulate the appetite of the patients, yet it can easily satisfy my barren humble stomach.
“You are clearly cheating … !” a sharp high-peach voice comes piecing into my ears.
“Not like that! I only said that the price starts from a hundred!” A middle aged woman responds defensively but with a good rhythm in a laid-back attitude .
She dresses properly in furs and leather with a nice silk scarf around her neck and a gilded chest pin decorated on her fur coat. From the very specific colour, the ear- rings and those on her fingers may very well be 24 karat gold or fake . Her greasy chubby face glows and makes her look healthy and wealthy.
“No! Yesterday, you told me it was a hundred! But now you see that my mom is very old and troublesome, you want to raise you price! It won’t work like this!”
With her argument not quite finished, the sharp lady splits her legs apart and puts her fists on her waists in the middle of the corridor to physically back up her winner’s position. A while later, I recognized that she is the daughter of wo ma.
Boxes of food start to queue up on the table waiting to be heated. Soon, there is no more space for more.
“Ok, queue up! ” I follow behind the line of about four to five people. I warn myself to go get food earlier next time so that I can avoid the long line.
“You obviously are cheating, and you want to deny it!” the daughter continues to yell her redundant point.
“Who cheat you? I did tell you it starts from a hundred ! We haven’t done the deal, have we? You can refuse to sign it then!”
So, it’s the daughter negotiating the price with the boss of a “company” that provides attendants.
“No way! you cunt! You have to keep what you spit out! You have to keep the price!”
“Wow, what a bitch!” I shake my head in my mind. Such a kind is not just a few!
The chubby boss of the attendant company is calm on the contrary. She carries her body straight with her head high, and replies in a relaxed tone:
“We surely can do business, but you should be more reasonable! All patients in this department, despite their ages, all need special care. How come I raise my price only for your mom? ”
Then, she takes out her contract without much emotion and asks:
“Want to do or not? A hundred and twenty!”
She appears in no hurry to close the deal or to give it up. If it was me, I wouldn’t accept the job regardless of the price. Knowing such a kind, further troubles are waiting down the road.
“Do if a hundred!” the daughter blasts out these words as if she was banging nails into a piece of steel!
By now, I have already moved up in line getting close to where the chubby woman is standing. I look over her shoulder and see on her one-sheet contract: Low Price Sincere Best Quality Attendant Service – Twenty Four Hours Intensive Attending – A Hundred Yuan A Day.
Indeed, the contract doesn’t state that the price starts from a hundred. I ask the woman why she doesn’t write it clearly in her contract that the price changes accordingly.
She looks at me with her oddly wide open eyes and answers scornfully: ” Who the hell would bother so much for that? We all negotiate face to face. Everyone does the same. There is no fixed price! If she doesn’t know that, she is nuts! I sell, she buys. She doesn’t buy, then that’s it!”
I remember now this fur and leather wrapped woman sitting with the Guards around a heater, chatting, laughing, and receiving people who need photo copies everyday in the Guard’s Office. The Guards’ room is also her office.
The business of hiring an attendant for wo ma concluded among the throng and food smell in the corridor with grand difficulties and pain than doing the attendant job itself. The boss took a step back and the price is set at a hundred Yuan a day.
Under the fur and leather coat is the chubby boss as untouched and calm as a statue, as flexible and slippery as an eel, and in its pocket hide many hungry pale middle age country women whose sons are in need of big money to continue their colleges or universities, or whose elderly parents are waiting at home for money to cure their health problems. The chubby woman in gold ornaments is a heroine who is helping these poor women support their falling “half-sky” Chairman Mao had granted them. She can be called a fine noble woman lined with the delicate soft silky scarf.
We’ve lost peace ever since wo ma moved into our ward with her family. In Yunnan dialect wo ma means my mother.
The daughter and the daughter-in-law of wo ma have no sense of prudence or of the existence of other people. They have the plain look of uneducated Chinese middle-aged women: medium height, bulky breasts, bucket waist, and flat asses tucked in. They are strong, fat, and loud, senseless in tasteless clothes that can be seen on countless women of their age. They make a hell of noise while making the bed, putting cups, bowls, spoons and chopsticks in the drawers. Thank God that chopsticks are made of wood! But WE are made of wood as well to allow them to continue dropping basins onto the floor and dragging chairs around.
The daughter has just pushed through the deal and signed the one-page contract on which many additional scripts are casually marked. She now turns around to find the nurse in charge. She goes on and on about how the nurses should look after her mother and emphasizes how important her mother is. In the chaos, the old dad sits quietly and heavily on the shaky wooden chair looking out the window into nothingness. His belt is pushed high up onto the top of his big belly just below his chest and his cardigan is stretched with buttons ready to burst.
A while later, a woman of about forty years old comes into our ward. She is the attendant hired to look after wo ma 24/7! Of course, the pay wouldn’t all go to the attendant, and it’s not proper to ask what her cut is. But I am even more curious on how a woman could work with “good quality” for twenty-four hours every day for seven days! They will not hire a second woman for the night shift, simply no one wants to deal with two people for the same job which one country woman is more than willing and “able” to handle.
Strangely, another attendant appears in front of us just an hour later. Obviously the first attendant has quit or is fired.
During the change, with her face full of graceful soothing smiles, the chubby boss constantly shouts into the ears of the deaf wo ma, and endlessly comforts the two distrusting daughters with as many endearing words as her vocabulary can afford. In between, she expressively and repeatedly stresses the importance of the job to the attendant as if she cared so much about her job that she could never stop training her workers on site .
The new attendant looks kind and timid. The yellowish dark coarse skin of a typical Yunnan country woman shows the cruelty of the dry weather and scorching sun, and her faded blue Mao’s soldier jacket turns life’s necessity into the proof of passive excessive abuse.
Though only about forty, she could easily be mistaken to be my mother. She is small and short, diligent and fast, discreet with no words. She comes in and goes out in light careful steps and absolute quietness. She never stops doing things.
Wo ma‘s family is very happy about her and so are we. Her arrival and qualified behaviour mean that the big crowd should soon be leaving and we will have our tranquility back.
After supper, the two daughters and the dad are still hanging in there tight as if they got their feet nailed to the floor. Seeing no sign of leaving, we become desperate. Our old ladies can’t take their nap and I am horribly exhausted with all the noise. It is 19:30 already.
Oh well, what can I do except letting my thoughts wither in my head?! Mother didn’t sleep after lunch, so maybe she will sleep tonight without the tranquilizer!
From 20:00 to 22:00 every evening, it is our happy time. The CCTV(China Central TeleVision Station) channel 1 is broadcasting a TV series called: “The Foggy City”. The Fogy City is the nick name for Chong Qing city-one of the 1st tier cities of China in southwest under the direct administration of the Chinese Central Government. It is close to Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuna province. We are all expecting them to leave soon so that we can watch our show quietly on time.
“Go have a look and see if the doctor has come!”, the daughter demands her in-law, then the in-law goes and comes back not long after, followed by a middle aged man.
“The doctor is here!” The in-law says.
“Go!” the man follows his sister and wife out after he had a glimpse at his mother. They are all going to see the doctor.
I assume that there should be no other reason for them to stay any longer after that!
There is only fifteen minutes left before the show starts. I get the basin and go fetch some hot water for Mother to wash before we sit still and watch the show together.
When I pass in front of the doctors’ office, the door is wide open. I sneak into the doorway.
The office is about eighteen square meters. There are eight tables with drawers. Four groups of two tables stand back to back with two computers also back to back on top. If we think the office as crowded, then we have to use fully loaded and messy to describe the table tops. Around the computers, pieces of papers, blank charts for ECG, CT Scan, and other unfamiliar documents are carelessly left on top of each other. There are so many on the tables that they are literally about to fall over the edges. At the entrance, there is a little sink, on the edge of which a used piece of soap is dropped.
At the far end of the room, there is a huge black board on the wall. On it, it reads messages in chalk: “Congratulations to Professor Wang to have been promoted as the Person in Charge of the Orthopaedics Department”, “Enthusiastically celebrate the excellent performance in the professional competition!”, “Congratulations, Nurse Xiao Yang for your completion of the Internship with excellent results!”
On the right wall, there is also an enormous pin-board, but white. Pinned on it are flakes of papers, pieces of printed Hospital Regulations spreading across the board, word after word like ants, page after page counting up to sixty or seventy! These papers of regulations are the only things in this hospital that are arranged and pinned nicely and neatly.
Dr. Fu is in there, together with the daughter, the son and his wife. The son is standing behind a table facing Dr. Fu with one hand holding a pretty box, his wife on Dr. Fu’s right and the daughter on the left. The daughter’s right hand grabs Fu’s arm and the other extends into Fu’s pocket.
“Don’t do that, don’t do that! ” Fu protests redundantly as if pleading, trying to pull the daughter’s hand out from his pocket with a deliberate effort.
The three turn their deaf ears. Pushing, dragging and crashing, they push Fu down on the chair.
“If you don’t accept, then you are a snobbish person!” the daughter says so as if she was one of the characters in the legendary stories of “Shui Hu” — one of the four most famous novels in Chinese Classical Literature (水浒). The son seconds, “That’s it!”
Passive aggressive tactics are always good to be used as “intelligent tricks” to achieve unusual purposes.
Dr. Fu doesn’t even have chance to utter a word, the daughter shoots her tongue like a machine gun followed by the wife and seconded by the man: “Indeed! We are paying you respect, not bribing you! Why you are afraid?”, “No body will know about this, every doctor does this!”, “Yes, of course!” Wow, what a hot bunch! They move in clumsy ways but their challenge and remarks dash shrewdly and unscrupulously!
“It’s our duty to treat the patients…” Poor Fu, he tilts up his head looking around from the daughter to the son, to the wife and back again, like a hostage under life threats, having only the right to plead and obey.
Fu is neither tall nor big. He literally shrinks under the strength of the three hefty loud and bold people. His bloated winter coated body struggles against the three as if he was a thief caught in the act. Only his glasses on the floor and the white coat identify him as the doctor, painting a thin line between a Chinese professional and the three.
At this moment, I tug back my head trying not to get into other people’s business. I swiftly walk into the water room.
Outside the window, some large pieces of snow still sit on the low steep roof of some traditional houses, soft like cotton; some other smaller patches perch on the dark blue tiles, white like doves.
The situations in the past few years come back to my mind, situations where we had to bribe the surgeons for my parents’ operations. We are teachers’ family who can never understand or feel ease at following this social customs, especially me. I am the “alienated” and an “idiotic” woman under the influence of the good part of western culture, apparently out of date about this big hidden new rule. Fortunately, we are saved by our in-law who is a doctor of this hospital and who knows this rule very well.
If only the tradition and customs could help wo ma get better, and the shrewd and cunning effort of her children could save her from dying…
At eight o’clock sharp, the TV show starts. Moments of happiness do exist even among people overwhelmed with miseries. The sick ladies are all intrigued by the story of General Zhu Hao and his love affairs with seven wives and an “avant-guard” student — the true love of his life. In their dim and dull eyes, bits of tears flicker out their desperate wish for ever-lasting life and love.
A while later, the lady on Bed No.1 says to me:
“Young lady, turn up the TV!” I did. Yes, indeed, it has been too noisy to hear anything.
The son is gone, but the two daughters are still here. They seem to love their mother so much that they would keep well her company, even while she is fast asleep, with loud chatting as if the silence would wake her up!
“Eh, please! Can you lower down your voice?” I speak timidly. I couldn’t hold back any more.
“Young lady, turn up more!” I am ordered again.
This time, it is more like a command. I turn around and see her face red with anger and green with contempt.
“Haven’t you seen that we are all watching TV? Would you please be quieter? or could you talk outside…”
Mother starts to drag my sleeve and shush me before I could even finish my sentence. She implies that I should mind my own business.
The two daughters quiet down. But that is only the silence before the thunder storm.
“ha, you are allowed to watch TV and we are NOT allowed to talk?” the daughter suddenly breaks the silence and yells, but weirdly she is facing her in-law.
Her earlier performance in the corridor has painted well her picture, so I am more careful in choosing my words:
“I didn’t mean that you could not talk, I just asked you to be a bit quieter and let the old ladies watch TV. But anyway, your own mother is sleeping as well. We all should be quiet! Four patients, me and four of you are already too many here in the small ward. We should all try to keep quiet…”
While I was talking, Mother tapped frustratingly on my lower back meaning: stop.
“Who do you think you are? Who the hell are you? Don’t like the noise, go some where else, why do you come here?” the daughter attacks back immediately.
The lady on Bed no.1 and I look at each other with a teasing smile and we shut up. They wouldn’t stay and be bitchy till 9 o’clock, would they?
“So what, we are many! We can afford people, not like some people who are lonely with no one to spare! Don’t be jealous! We will have fun and make noise to make you jealous to death! ”
The daughter wouldn’t drop it. The in-law plays her opera mate. The two bitches are truly having fun putting up a live show of the market place. Too bad, they have no rivals…We continue watching the TV, though in even more noise.
“Look at her fucking cunt face! Hospital is not her home! Want to have a quiet place, fucking go home! ”
Now, I feel that I should get some interference. I quickly come to the nurse station to look for someone who has authority to shut them up. It’s not serious enough to call the guards and the guards are useless anyway. I then turn to doctors and nurses. This is a hospital. If patients family wouldn’t respect their room mates, they should at least listen to the doctors and nurses, I assume. Aren’t there flakes of regulations on the white board? There must be a rule of order. Since they are posted in the doctors office, they might only have something to do with the doctors. But whose business is it then to keep the order of the hospital?
Anyhow, I want to try. Just at that moment, Dr Fu comes over.
“Eh, hello Dr. Fu! Could you please ask the family of Bed no.4 to be a bit quieter? The whole family have been making a big fuss since one o’clock this afternoon! We couldn’t stop them, we couldn’t even talk sense to them!”
Dr. Fu is busy reading some document while walking. Hearing my words, he lifts his head, looking at somewhere else and says:
“I have to see a patient from the front office. I’ll be right back!”
He continues walking towards his office. I follow him closely saying persistently: “just give me a few minutes to settle the problem, ok? Please ask them to be quiet!”
Dr. Fu turns his head and looks through the door into the ward. There, he sees the two daughters chatting and laughing with energy and fun. He turns his eyes onto his paper and says:
“aiya, drop it. They will leave soon. It’s a bit noisy but we have no other ways. We just have this kind of condition!”
Yes, of course, seeing patients is much more important than keeping the order. Basically Chinese people all have this attitude of “one thing more is less good than one thing less” (duo yi shi bu ru shao yi shi -多一事不如少一事）, and this is not doctors’ business anyway. Not bothering with the problem, the problem would vanish itself of course. Besides, Dr. Fu could never forget what happened in his office earlier when he was almost kidnapped by the hefty three…
I return to the ward sheepishly like a pupil who has failed to report on his fellow classmates.
A day after, Mother is well enough to leave, so we are thrilled to get out of there!
The lady on Bed no.1 had a heart attack and has to stay for how long, no one knows. Her son who is the president of a university comes to see his mother between busy schedules. But she always refuses to let her son stay too long. She usually would say to her son in a lecturing way:
“What are you here for? I am very well! You have to work tomorrow, and you are busy on other matters over the weekend, go back, go home!”
With a gentle smile on his face, the son always says softly:
“Mom, I’ve finished my work, not busy now. Stay here some time with you! ”
Then he sits slowly on the edge of his mother’s bed. Yet only two minutes after, his mother has succeeded in driving her son back home. To her, her son’s job is more important than her health, and her son seems to have thorns on his body to prevent him from getting closer to his mother.
Arriving home, I find that I forgot the basin in the ward. I think we can leave it there for other people, but Mother insists that we get it back.
Two days after, I am passing by the hospital. So I stop for the basin.
It’s eleven o’clock in the morning. No sooner I get out from the elevator when I hear someone screaming and yelling! There is a big crowd and there seems a hot dispute going on!
“No way, no way!” the voice sounds familiar.
Oh, yes, it is again the daughter of wo ma. She is surrounded by some twenty people, among whom are patients’ families, nurses, two or three doctors and two security guards. Through the crowd, I see her stand with the left fist on her waist, right hand raised over her head, index finger pointing towards the doctor’s office. Her anger is surging over the crowd and her words travel far in the corridor:
“No way! We have to check things out! Call the president of the hospital! …Just in the hospital for a few days and she is gone…”
A small gold fish aquarium on the table against the window falls blasting onto the floor after a chaotic move of the crowd. The fishes bounce all over gasping with mouthes open and close, and with their round eyes staring at the ceiling. No one cares about the little petty struggling and dying fishes on the floor. On the wet floor, there scattered thousands of roasted sunflower seeds that were brought by a nurse to crack open to eat while they have time. Fishes, son flower seeds, water, pieces of broken aquarium mess up ugly in the messy steps.
Behind the daughter stand firmly two strong men of about fifty and a young man of about twenty-five. With the daughter, they push the crowd towards the doctor’s office. The deserter-like guards and the weak nurses together with patients’ families block the way as a dam while the tide of anger surges once and again without any intention to ebb.
Just at this moment, a few people are coming out from the doctor’s office: a man and a woman in white uniforms tottering towards the elevator with another man in white between them. One hand of the man is pressing on his nose with some white bandage soaked in blood, under which more blood is oozing out. The other hand is holding his glasses with broken lenses thick as the bottom of a glass bottle. When they pass by, I realize that the injured one is Dr. Fu! My heart start racing, not knowing what has just happened.
“Hey, we are told nothing bad would happen! Look, what happened? She is gone! You call that nothing?” The doctor in charge might have consoled them to get them calm down instead of diagnosing the gravity, but now it comes back hopelessly as a cancer to attack the doctor himself and the hospital!
Yes, wo ma died.
“Call the hospital president! If we can’t settle it with him, we will see you in court!” The daughter howls like a wolf with rabies.
Hearing her, an image of liberated wolf jumps in front of my eyes. Mao Ze Dong had done the greatest thing in history for Chinese women by liberating them, yet he couldn’t change the nature of wolves. Intelligent humans could evolve with realization of divinity, yet Confucian society has managed China with her people struggling on the basic survival level as animals despite his grand wisdom…
The daughter speaks as if the hospital president is her relative, and the court is a great friend to her kin. Yes, even the ordinary people in China know that if they are connected to powerful people and institutions, they can change enemies into friends, and friends into enemies.
I phoned our in-law for more information. Barely have I started my conversation when I hear a high pitched sharp scream of a young girl. I am afar and can’t see what just happened. Through backs of heads, I vaguely see a young face projected with a long scratch on her right chin. Blood runs out through her fingers and drops onto the wet floor full of sunflower seeds and dying fishes. The air is filled with hot sweat and loud heart beats…
The injured is the young pretty intern.
I hope that doctors’ white coats can hood the sick devils; the little stethoscopes can hear people’s miseries; advanced medical equipment can proceed the jobs of the holy saviour; the nurses’ loving smile and empathy can convey immortal warmth, calm the fear of the lost souls, and help them be at ease when facing pain and death.
I remember that the following day after Mother was hospitalized, I saw this young intern changing water for the aquarium. After she finished, there stood only an aquarium with water but no fishes. The piece of dark brown tree trunk was missing, the only piece of toy with which the fishes played hide and seek. I asked her what had happened. She said that the tree trunk was poisonous and all the fishes died because of that. So, she would have to go get some more fishes from the Flowers and Birds Market nearby when she got more time.
With the flashback and seeing blood dripping from her fresh and pretty face, my legs are itchy and painful like ants crawling and biting. The feasting leeches are creeping, tickling and irritating the nerves in my bones.
I dialled 110…