Imagine you are in the 1985 Xiamen described in “A Walk in a Chinese Port Town.” You come to an old building of hand-cut granite and a curvy, red roof. Inside there are dark wooden staircases, freshly swept red tile floors, the somewhat dingy look of a typical traditional Chinese building. Then you enter a ward which reminds you of World War I or II movies with European settings. Above the hand-crank hospital beds are mosquito net racks hanging from the ceiling. You approach the one bed with a heater/air-conditioner, a luxury reserved for foreigners and important Chinese. The patient is a tall, gregarious young man with a New Zealand accent. He gestures a lot when he talks, and he looks at you as if his only interest is communicating to you personally.
I do arts and crafts at home. I came to China to see if I could pick up some skills here. I’d like to learn Chinese painting, calligraphy, and wood carving.
On the boat from Hong Kong I met Michelle, and we spent most of the voyage talking. She said I should come to the university and meet some other artists and some New Zealanders. One of them I knew from my hometown. So within about four days I got to know several people. I also got a big room in the foreign students’ dorm on campus, which is costing me about four kuai a night [four yuan or $1.39].
A few days after I arrived in China, I got horrible stomach pain. I thought I had a stomach bug, and Dean went to the hospital for some Chinese medicine, and I took that. It tasted horrible. I’ve heard that Chinese medicine is usually really effective, but this was not what you take when with an inflamed appendix, you know? I lay there all day and all night. Then I got up and got dressed, and I walked out and met George, the tall American guy.
I said, “Where’s the hospital?”
“There’s a clinic downstairs.”
So we went down, and he told them it was sore, and at that stage I had located the pain down toward my appendix.
George said, “Oh, you’d better go to the hospital.”
We went to the hospital and got in to see a doctor. She put me on a table, and she stretched my leg one way, and she stretched my leg another way, and she said, “Does that hurt?”
“Yeah, that hurts.”
Then she pushed down on my stomach.
Then we went to another doctor—George was translating—and he did exactly the same thing to me. By this time I was getting a lot sorer because that was happening. The doctor gave me a blood test and came out with the results.
He said, “When did it start?” I told him, and he said, “It’s really dangerous the way it is right now. Twenty-four hours is about the limit for this sort of thing. We’re going to operate at two o’clock this afternoon.”
That made twenty-six hours, so I was past their period. George and the doctor took me to a room and he said, “Hop into bed.”
I turned around and said, “Don’t I get any…where’s my pajamas?”
They don’t supply pajamas here. So I hopped into bed with all my clothes on. It was quite funny—you’ve got to have a sense of humor. I’m not sure if they had shot me up with drugs or not.
By two o’clock Dean had come with Ann. So there were about four people from the university, and I was getting wheeled away to the operating room. My head was pretty thick by that time, but I know I was still wearing my street clothes. George and the doctor had shaved my pubic hair, so that area was all clean. I think I was on the drip as well. Yeah, George was the Mobile Drip Carrier as we all went down to the operating room.
I said, “They’re probably going to give me acupuncture, and I’ll be awake the whole time this is going on. Ha ha ha…see you later!”
Sue asked, “When is he coming around?”
“Oh, he’s not coming around. We’re just giving him a local anesthetic.” [Total anesthesia can be very dangerous without the proper technology.]
I got into the operating theater, and it was a fairly normal sort of room with red tile floors just like anywhere else, but there was a proper operating lamp and everything like that. The surgeon, Dr. Li, was the only one who could speak any English. She’d been speaking to me a bit beforehand, and I felt confident in her hands. She made me feel that I had nothing to worry about.
They got me in there and changed me from one bed to another and spread my arms out. I was pretty zonked, so when they tied my arms down I didn’t think anything about it. Then they tied my legs down. I was waiting to go zzzomp into the blackness on gas or something like that. The next thing I felt was a hot line down there, and I realized, “She’s starting to cut—oh, jeeee—it’s started!”
The operation took two hours. I phased in and phased out a couple of times. I may actually have been unconscious. I was pretty delirious during some of it, but I could sometimes—the pain was—I could feel when they were cutting and when it was pulling. I apparently had puss. The appendix had ruptured, and they were lifting and pulling and wiping, and I could feel it, you know. My arms were going up and down urroommurgh.
When I was back in my room, they told me I couldn’t eat or drink any fluid for three days, but I could rinse my mouth out with boiled water. The drip would be my food. I was really thirsty, so that was probably the biggest shock of all—that I couldn’t drink for two days.
Actually, the operation was good in some ways. In the last five or six years I’ve gotten into developing my sensory system and my psyche. The last time I had a big knockout, it closed a lot of my sensitivity down, and it took a long time to come back. Whereas for this operation they gave me the mildest anesthetic they could probably, and it hasn’t affected my system at all. Maybe I went through a bit of pain, but my system wasn’t knocked around by a drug or anything like that. I don’t think I suffered from it in the long run.
In China if someone goes in the hospital, the family looks after the patient. Someone was with me every night after the operation. When I could eat, Mike and Dave and George took turns buying my breakfast and bringing it to me. Michelle did all the lunches, and Ann and Sue did the dinners. George fronted up the 200 kuai [$70] for me so I could pay part of the hospital bill and keep a little money on me, and Mike gave me another 50 kuai [$17]. These guys hardly knew me—hardly anyone knew me—but everyone really helped me. It really blew me away, that’s for sure. I suppose it’s good for everyone here to know that if anyone gets sick, people are prepared to help. George used to come every day and play chess with me or just sit and talk. Bruce and Sue used to come all the way from Gulangyu to see me. People brought me books and magazines and cans of orange drink.
The hospital staff were really good, too. Usually people have to empty their own urine bottles. I told one Chinese guy here that the staff always emptied my urine bottles for me, and he couldn’t believe I got such good service. Dr. Li was just magic for me. She went away for four days, and I really missed her, just because she was so full of life, and every time she came into the room we would both be laughing and joking.
Dean came in one morning and said, “I’m looking for the doctor.” He didn’t know about all the channels you have to go through. It was good for me because following him around gave me something to do. They took a cardiogram and then admitted him.
I was still in pain with my appendectomy wound. If I coughed or laughed it hurt, and if he laughed, it hurt him, too. But unfortunately we both have a sense of humor, and we were keeping score of how often we could make the other person hurt. Every time he made me laugh, I had to stand up because I couldn’t laugh sitting down. I was standing up and sitting down all the time. By the end of the day, if I stretched my leg I could laugh sitting down. That place was crazy for two days.
Early the next morning my heater/air conditioner didn’t work, and neither did Dean’s. There wasn’t enough juice for both air conditioners, I guess. When you turned the overhead light on, it was very faint. By the time it got dark, the hospital staff realized there was something wrong and they’d better fix the electricity. So they brought this guy up. We’d eaten dinner in the dark. We had visitors, and there were about six of us sitting around in the dark talking when the lights came on and the heater went woo woo woo and then BOOM, and the old blaster blew. It blew out three times that night.
That was the only night I got attacked by mosquitoes. For about six hours I lay there slapping myself, slapping my face. I had a mosquito net, but I had never pulled it over me. When I couldn’t sleep I managed to stand up—that was a bit tricky—and untie the net in the dark and spread it out over the bed and then lie down. I thought I had it all together—oh God! And then minutes later EEEE EEEE EEEE. Them bastards. There was a big hole in the net.
Exactly the same thing was happening in Dean’s room at the same time, so the staff came in and pulled the net over him. The next day he checked out. They never did find out what was wrong with him.
My temperature kept going up and down all the time, and there was this big mystery about what was causing the fever. They had said I might get an infection. The first words I heard Dr. Li say when I came out of the operation room were, “Oooo—very much pus! Very smelly, oohey, very stinky!”
Later they said, “If you’ve got an infection on your appendix side, it’s okay, we can fix it. But if you’ve got an infection on your stomach side it will be harder, because we’ll have to find the infection before we can fix it.”
I decided I’d get up and have a look at my wound. It was all healed over on the surface but very swollen at one point. I figured all the pus would have been hard to clean up and it had worked its way to the surface. I rushed down the hall. It was nighttime, and Dr. Li wasn’t there, so I showed it to another doctor, and she said “Woa huaa!” and something in Chinese. I rushed back to bed, and she came in. I was still wagged out.
The doctor lanced the wound and squeezed out all the puss. For the next three days puss was leaking out. I’ve still got a hole there now. I’ve got to have a bath kneeling down. It’s pretty tricky, but until the hole’s healed up I can’t put water on it because all kinds of things grow in the water here. After all that my fever went away.
China must be the cheapest place in the world to get your appendix done. At first Dr. Li had said the whole works would cost me about 250 yuan [$86]. They use a sliding scale. A foreigner is charged between three and ten times as much as a Chinese, depending on the financial position of the foreigner. A few days later she said they had calculated, and it came to 400 yuan .
I said, “Oooh!” like it was a bit of a shock to me from 250 yuan.
But she said, “Because you’re a single man with no income I’m going to go and talk to them and see if I can get it reduced. It’s a bit much for a man like yourself.”
The bill finally came to 280 yuan. She said what they’d done is tripled everything except the drug bill, which was the normal price. She said I should come to the hospital to have my dressing changed every couple of days. But they’re not charging me much to change the dressing.
Dr. Li is really, really good, you know. I gave her a bone carving as a present, and today she gave me a little present. She’s a great lady, one of the best people I’ve met in China.
Do I feel I was meant to be here? Well, let’s put it this way. When I first came here I didn’t know anybody, but then I met some people, and in hospital I got to know them better. A lot of people came to see me. People got to know I that I was an artist. It’s just possible that I may be able to get some work here and some good money, which is rare in China.
At least for the moment, this place fits like a glove. In that sense I can say it was all meant to be. If I hadn’t had my appendix out, I might have rushed off again. Now I’m prepared to stick around and see what happens. I’m mixing with some nice people. I’m starting to learn a little of the language, and I’m starting to think, “Yeah, I’d like to learn how to become a survivor in this place.”
Carol Dussere was a professor of English from 1984-86 in Xiamen University, Fujian, China and from 1989-2006 at Dongguk University in Seoul. The interviews and photos on this page were collected as a result of her experience abroad. She currently lives in the beautiful town of Tagaytay, Philippines, where she is working on two book manuscripts. ("Dussere" rhymes with "blue hair," which she doesn't have yet.)