February 27, 2010

61 Stories at Once

We took the elevator up to the 61st floor of the Macau Tower and I wasn’t coming back down in the elevator. At 233 meters, it’s the tallest bungy jump in the world. Your ears pop on the way up. It was my birthday, and while I wasn’t trying to overanalyze it, I thought it would be kind of ironic on a tombstone if anything went wrong. From the view up, there you can see the whole city and beyond. I was starting to feel a little sick. Not from the height, but from the day before…

This story has been published at... http://www.traveling-stories-magazine.com/61-stories-at-once/

February 25, 2010

A Possible Future for US Health Care

The health care debate is going to rage on for a while it seems. This raises an interesting question. Is it possible to puke blood from hearing too much bad news? Lucky for me, I’ve got universal health care. But I’m not saying this to put salt in a wound. Here in Germany, roughly 37 percent of your paycheck is taken out, most of it covering health care expenses. Ouch. As painful as 37 percent sounds, the only people I hear complaining are expatriates. But then again, I am one, and I can’t speak German.

Let’s switch gears from Germany and talk about China’s health care system. I had the pleasure of experiencing this first hand -- on multiple occasions. Food poisoning, like fireworks and smoking, is a way of life in China. Their health insurance companies are similar to ones in the States, but cost about the same as a moped. Make an appointment, show the doctor your card (if you have the strength) and you are on your way. There’s no co-pay, and basic medications are included. Sounds simple enough, but to become a resident of China, you must first pass the government mandated health exam. This is when, as the old timers say, you get what you pay for.

Make Sure They Use a New Needle

The school hired a man to drive us to the health facility, a 70 year old man named Zia and our Chinese translator, Rebecca (This was her English name. My friend Todd taught a girl who named herself Purple Micro Number Forty-Eight. She had a thing for Gobstoppers.). We drove through an area of Suzhou where sustenance gardens sprung up next to sidewalks. Dusty cinderblock buildings with brown-tiled roofs lined the crowded street. A river of bicyclists peddled alongside our van as we passed countless stalls of grilled innards and durian fruit.
I asked Zia where he was from.
“I spent some time in Italy,” he said. “But I had health problems.”
He looked like a lanky Fidel Castro and spoke with a mysterious accent one could expect from a Czech diplomat.

We arrived to an unremarkable white building blocked by a chrome gate. Rebecca handed over our passports at the front desk just before a group of Chinese migrant works stormed in. There were signs posted on the wall:
Be Silent. Wait Patiently. No Smoking. No Spitting. No Pets. No Photography.

Like most medical facilities, there was an underlying sense of sterility. This place, however, made Frankenstein’s lab look like a disco. We were led down a dark hallway. Smoked glass windows lined both sides, which projected the twisted shadows of neo-medical procedures.
The hall opened up to a ward surrounded by more smoked glass rooms. It was cold, and all of the medics wore face masks except for the woman drawing blood. I saw her working a needle into a man. A tube stuck out of his arm. There is no privacy. It is, after all, the People’s Republic. When the man came out I replaced him. A plastic pitcher of used needles sat on the desk between us. My wife had warned me, “make sure they use a clean needle. I mean actually watch her pull it out of the package.” I did just that, and then black blood loop-de-looped through the little hose. She pulled it out and dropped the needle in the jug. It was almost full.

A Picture For the Wallet

Then came the ultrasound of my stomach. I don’t know what they expect to find, but they squeezed that gooey gel onto me like a pregnant woman. The nurse dug the wand around my belly and pointed to the black and green TV screen. When it was over, I wiped off the gunk and she handed me a picture of my partially digested lunch.

An eye exam followed. The eye guy handed me a metal spoon, asked me to cover one eye with it, and call out the letters. They were all E. E’s to the right. E’s to the left. E up. E down. I figured he wanted directions.

“Um, E, E, E pointing left, E pointing down, E…”

He asked me to call out the next line and I just gave up. “E, E, E, E.” I passed, but couldn’t understand why a spoon worked better than my hand.

For the cardio gram, I took off my shirt and laid on a table while three Chinese girls stuck electrodes to my face, head, and chest. They asked me to lay still and then they disappeared. I closed my eyes and thought of someplace warm. Before long, a nurse snuck up and whispered into my ear from behind a mask. “Yor hart beat very slow.” “Thank you?“ I said. The girl handed me a post card sized readout of my leisurely vitals.

There’s not much waiting between the exams. It’s a free for all. Patients scurry in to get their forms stamped, and bolt out as if in a scavenger hunt. And then I walked into the X-ray room and all the radiologist were wearing boiler suits. I took off my shirt again, but had trouble removing the jade necklace my wife gave me.
“Put it in your mouth,” the boy said.
“You mean…” I said, and opened wide. He nodded. “You better not be screwing with me.”
“I’m sorry?”
I stuck it in, and the taste of Burberry cologne filled my mouth.

The last station was the dentist. A girl led me to a chair and reclined it until a light shone down into my eyes. When the dentist arrived, he quickly picked at my teeth and said that I had too much plaque and a broken front tooth.

I checked back with Rebecca and found her standing in the ultrasound room. Zia was laying down, surrounded by a group of about seven nurses. All of them were talking, looking to the ultrasound screen, and then back to each other. “What’s going on.” I shouldn’t have asked. It wasn’t any of my business, but I just got caught up in the excitement. Before Rebecca could respond, I heard one nurse say to another, “But he has no stomach.” They printed it out anyway. I waited on a cold steel chair until the fiasco was over.

It’s hard to say that a health care system in one country is better that another. Each country is just too different. If it came down to a solid universal health care plan, would Americans be willing to fork over 37 percent of their earnings for it? Or will cut-rate medical facilities have to serve the growing needs of the masses? Either way, you get what you pay for. The debate will surely rage on, but sooner or later, they’ve got to rip the Band-Aid off. Might as well do it quickly.

February 24, 2010

Independence Day...in China?

I write everything down it seems, on scraps of papers, napkins, you name it. Some of it is a little strange. Most of it is dated.

Fourth of July…the sound of fireworks rips across an early morning sky. To some, this could be the prelude to an Independence Day celebration in Any Town, USA. It was, however, just another day in Suzhou, China. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good explosion as much as the next American, but China is the final word in fireworks. Pyromania is not a condition here -- it is the norm. You’d think all that noise would have a strange effect on people. Excessive twitchiness, perhaps, but it’s not long before your subconscious starts to block it out. Give it a couple weeks. Like a bird’s song and a morning cup of coffee, those explosions slowly become a part of you.

Of course, I didn’t stumble into China saying “golly” every time a mortar exploded. The thing I found strange was that for the amount of fireworks ignited, there aren’t a whole lot of shops selling it. There are bootleg DVD markets out the wazoo, enough cigarette stalls to keep the population under a trillion, and too many green tea boutiques to count. Much like the noise, it’s easy to walk past a long row of storefronts without giving them a second look. Whether you’re in Suzhou or Shanghai, shopping can get mundane on the main streets. That is, unless you go out shopping for adventure.

A few blocks away from my apartment complex is a neighborhood plaza. Once you make a right at the NO SPITTING sign, there is a police supply store that sells cattle prods, batons, and pepper spray, amongst other things. It’s right across from a baby clothes store. My friend Todd went in to buy an authentic police helmet to wear on his electric scooter. Todd pointed to it and the shopkeeper eyed him, picked up the phone and began dialing. When he had someone on the line, he handed over the phone. It was the police. From what Todd could make out, they wanted to make sure that he, a 230 pound Kiwi, wasn’t going to use it for “official” police business. He bought it for 50 Yuan.

The 47 bus will take you down Shi Quan Jie, or as it’s know in Suzhou, bar street. The bars have been closing down lately, due partly to the slowing economy and the city’s rapid expansion. But it’s not all bars. We stepped off the bus after spotting a sign that read “Sex Shop.” There’s a lot of talk about censorship in China, which is why we had to check it out. When you walk in, the downstairs is filled with baby clothes. A leather clad mannequin points you upstairs to a small room. The boy working there was suprisingly shy, and knew very little English. We were very quiet. The shop carried a relatively small selection, and some of the packaging was a little faded. It almost felt as if we were visiting a museum. At the end, in what appeared to be an attempt to fill space, there were some delicate porcelain eggs behind a display case.

For lunch, we walk down to our favorite restaurant, a Chinese Muslim kebab joint. We take a seat at the outside table, next to grill and the canal. We order fifteen lamb kebabs. The grill master dismisses us with a wave of the hand. He tells us we want twenty. I’ve never eaten at this restaurant and not been amazed by this man. He drinks steaming water from on old metal kettle, and catcalls the pretty girls who walk by. Todd had been studying Chinese and decided to get some practice in.

“He wants to know if you’re English,” said Todd. “He says English people hate lamb.” Todd told him I was American. The grill master looked at me, smiled, and went back to tapping the sticks above the coals.
When the sticks were ready, the grill master joined us at the table. He gawked to girls on the sidewalk and sipped from his silver kettle. Mostly he ignored us. Todd asked him if he ever ate pork.

He replied by scrunching up his face, then spitting on the ground.