Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Beyond negativity

Lynn Sadler
Pittsboro, North Carolina, United States

Photography by leniners on Flickr

My husband Emory and I have traveled to China five times since participating in the (Eisenhower) People to People’s Citizen Ambassador Program from May 21 through June 2, 1995. Then we were members of a “Biofeedback Delegation to the People’s Republic of China” and visited educational and medical facilities and tourist attractions in Beijing (Peking), Xi’an (Sian), Guangzhou (Canton, Kangchow), and Hong Kong. The expectation was that we would be exposed to the history and accomplishments of “traditional Chinese medicine,” but what we learned of it was confined largely to visits to college and university settings. Our hosts in the medical facilities seemed, rather, to want to show off their new x-ray machines. They had virtually no biofeedback equipment.

Although my husband has a PhD in statistical psychology, he was, at the time, part of a three-person team (with an anesthesiologist and a physical therapist) in a pain management clinic. Yet, though he was the professional on this trip, I, with my doctorate in English, seemed to have more in common with our Chinese counterparts than the scientists in the delegation. Some of my earliest publications, related to poetry, were in the British journal, Alchemy and Early Chemistry, and I had taught courses in “Alchemy and Literature” at the graduate and undergraduate level. The claims we heard for Qigong and Traditional Chinese Medicine seemed more akin to the search for the Philosopher’s Stone than to biofeedback techniques. Whether for the sake of politeness I never learned, but, when we introduced ourselves and I cited my interest in Paracelsian versus Galenic treatments, I received many knowing nods from our hosts.

When we visited Xi’an’s Chinese Traditional Culture University, the reception and “presentation” were impressive. The tables offered bowls of fruit, bottled water, candy, and flowers. Classical music played softly in the background until the “ceremony” began. The whole experience was recorded by a television camera. The woman president was flanked by two female vice-presidents; two male translators sat behind them. The problem was that the older “most honorable” translator was hilariously poor—I felt that I could understand the women’s Chinese far better than his fractured English! Fortunately, after his interminable rendering of speeches by the three “Dowager Empresses,” he yielded to his infinitely more accessible colleague.

Here we were also treated to “Show and Tell Chinese Style.” This university claimed the foremost Qigong Master in all China. However, he was not present; nor was his absence explained. Fortunately, his disciples were in place and gave manifold demonstrations of the power he had passed along to them—but not until we participated in two “warm-up group” exercises. These involved some of his followers looking at one of us and describing his past and present illnesses and disorders at great length. On the return to the hotel, those who had been guinea pigs admitted to agreeing with the reports for the sake of politeness. A student whose art work was on display around the room went into a trance and painted two masterpieces as we watched. We were entertained by two women who had been treated for cancer by The Master and had subsequently acquired indwelling spirits, Super Dove and Henry (!), respectively. Both of these inner residents kindly responded to audience questions (so long as they could be answered with “yes” or “no”). I left impressed by Chinese ventriloquism and amazed at the seeming superstition.

Qigong is several thousand years old and is practiced by some fifty million Chinese today. It relies principally on concentration for its technique and, for content, on the five elements as well as yin and yang. Proponents claim that it aids body regulation in general and breathing, the endocrine system, and circulation in particular; has a good effect on the nervous system and joints; and helps cure heartburn/reflux. It strengthens the internal organs and immune system, particularly by promoting natural killing cells and producing interferon; brings more vigor, control of the self, and longevity; and enables patients to treat their own illnesses. From it emerged a new wave of acupuncture and “psychic” massage. Moreover, the treatments do not produce the dependency associated with Western drugs.

Our delegation in general had difficulty accepting the message in the medium: institutes and hospitals too often in disrepair and unbelievably dirty and foul-smelling, including the bathrooms. We revered the “ancientness” of it all and wanted to believe, but the presentations too frequently smacked of tourist-guide patter and never moved toward the body (diet)-mind emphasis of today.

The air everywhere was horrid. The Forbidden City was dingy and weathered (though “Audio Tours” were available in ten different languages/dialects). We were repeatedly warned not to drink its water. Advertisements proclaimed thermoses of (safe) hot water in our rooms, but we had to see that our supply was refilled.

During our entire stay, only one dish, an appetizer, even approached hot. I had anticipated learning to distinguish Szechwan, Peking, Huaiyang, Shandong, Hunan, Cantonese, and Fukien dishes. We found variety and myriad courses, particularly at official “banquets,” but routine came quickly—always the lazy Susan with chop sticks flailing as the food spun by, the same dishes in the same order, Chinese beer or (begrudged) orange soda at room temperature.

Lazy Susan whirls,
chop sticks collide in food space,
Westerners red-faced.

The vegetables, including the “fried” peanuts, tended toward wonderful.

Our group often divided, with the professionals going to a university or hospital and the spouses to a tourist attraction. We met for lunch, but the tardy ate what was left or nothing. We were standardly ushered to special tourist sections of restaurants. Most often, in the cities, we went to “tourist restaurants,” where we passed tables of people talking in French or German (most frequently) or Japanese. In Guangzhou, a plaque outside a restaurant declared it an “Official Tourist Stop.” Lunch was usually scheduled where we could shop. One guide explained “Friendship Stores”—not everything proclaiming itself a government-run shop open only to tourists and price-controlled actually was. The “Friendship Hotel,” where we ate lunch, took its name from being next to a large “Friendship Store” that was not a real one.

One member of our group met friends of friends-back-home at a Beijing “non-tourist” restaurant for dinner. It was down alleyways and backways, and he could never have found his way there alone; the driver had enough trouble. His arrival created a “stir”—and not just because he was in a “rich man’s third-level” taxi (as opposed to the cheapest, the “yellow worm”; the “second level,” an air-conditioned, more expensive subcompact; or travel by foot, called “taking Bus 11”). Restaurant personnel assured him that a “foreigner” could not eat there, and he was kept out until his hosts arrived.

The food at rural restaurants, where our guides seemed to have “connections,” was more elaborate and more individualized. The personnel also appeared far more pleased to have us and were very polite. (The toilets were worse.)

Our hotels, all “three-star,” “catered” to Westerners. My husband and I tried the “Western Restaurant” in Guangzhou’s Dong Fang Hotel. We should have listened to the guide’s warning that a state-run entity could not buy “authentic Western.” My “toasted ham and cheese sandwich” was un-anointed and served on cold toast; Emory’s foot-long hot dog was two inches of gray meat worse than any British banger. He was supplied with brand-name mustard and catsup apparently meant to justify the “Western” label. This was the same hotel where I asked to have our room changed because the mildew sent me into a coughing paroxysm when we opened the door and where the tissue box kept leaping onto the bathroom floor (courtesy of Super Dove or Henry?). It was also the only one that required us to deposit our key at a manned desk on the floor whenever we left. Our Xi’an hotel (which offered a quintet of classical musicians every evening in the lobby) had a small goat, staked out in a “garden room,” subsequently cooked to attest to the freshness of the meat.

One Chinese-American participant complained that we “tourists” weren’t getting indigenous food and not just because Western tastes dictated blandness. The restaurants in our upscale hotels were too expensive, so, except for breakfast (always “Western,” served buffet style), we were taken elsewhere. The Chinese delicacies, particularly fish, not only cost too much but would be wasted on untutored tourist palates. I at least was a glutton for his food lore. For example, the head of the fish is placed before the individual of highest rank, while the tail denotes the one who must pay or the unlucky person about to lose a job. He also warned us never to turn the fish over, an act symbolizing overturning fishermen’s boats. Fish are used to identify millionaires; commoners will not eat their heads and eyes, but the rich consider them delicacies. He labeled our Xi’an “Dumpling Banquet” “cheap,” pointing out that “dim sum” (“little snacks” or “dot hearts”) would provide mid-morning brunch for Chinese but never dinner. Back home, I researched sufficiently to recognize the presentation—steamer baskets and small plates—as authentic. I hypothesize that, given the opening of China with President Nixon’s trip (1972) and the American “discovery” of dim sum in the mid-1970’s, the present Chinese view of Americans was codified then.

Ordinary Chinese may understand the economic advantages of tourists and still not like us. They smash through you. My husband hypothesizes that such actions are instinctive, the detritus of living too long under crowded conditions.

Red, hot crowds at march.
You can’t get out of the way.
You lose pace—and face.

On the other hand, if you venture onto college campuses or into public parks early in the morning (by 6:00), where people flock to exercise (with swords, long sticks, scarves, hands and feet, or minds), students, professors, and occasional citizens seek you out to practice their English. But I received not the faintest encouragement to join a group engaged in a fair approximation of Western line dancing.

East and West could meet:
Chinese exercise in parks.
Westerners line dance.

A major surprise was the frequent couples who were ballroom dancing.

Our delegation was not made privy to how the Chinese came to revere the body-mind-Nature link, but that image of their early-morning exercise remains uppermost for me (and my husband and I both participate now in Tai Chi). I have tried to capture it in poetry:

Still Life: Men and Birds

The two venerables entered
through different park gates.
Padding slowly.
Cages balanced carefully, riding high.
One red; the other, green.
The birds a flash of animated yellow.
Birds and their habitations
relieving their masters’ Maoist black.

Like lines of purposeful soldier ants
marching for their hill with hard-won booty,
the two old men and their makeweights
made solemn way to meet at last
beneath the favored cherry plum.
The bowing went on and on in pantomime.
When they knew it through—
and they did know—
they hung the cages
at places worn by handles’ hooks,
then sat upon their bench beneath.

The two old men talked gently for a time,
telling, Chinese-fashion,
of the important century
observed to pass
since they’d met the day before.
Did they have to talk in Mandarin?
Were they blessed to share a dialect?

When the proper time had passed,
they stood
to ballet through
exercises and Tai Chi.
Their hands were birds in flight,
bobbing roses . . . .
Magic filled those hands with scarlet silk,
flashing silver swords. Those old men
danced themselves as beautiful as birds.

The birds had conversed throughout,
canary trills counterpointing
masters’ studied grace.
Did they have to talk in Mandarin Bird?
Were they blessed to share a dialect of Bird?

Even now, as we worry that Hong Kong’s assurances are being ignored, we rely on the feeling that emerged during that initial trip:

For me, China is
Xanadu and Kubla Khan—
worlds of time all still.

LYNN VEACH SADLER, PhD, a former college president, has published five books and seventy-two articles and has edited twenty-two books/proceedings and three national journals and published a newspaper column. In creative writing, she has ten poetry chapbooks and four full-length collections (another in press), over one hundred short stories, four novels, a novella, and a short story collection (another in press) and forty-one plays. As the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet 2013-2015, she mentors student and adult poets. She works as a writer and an editor. She and her husband have voyaged around the world five times, with Lynn writing all the way.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 7, Issue 1 – Winter 2015

Winter 2015 



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