Monday, April 19, 2010

Chiang Kai-shek's Revenge, or: Hurling Ourselves Into China

(A note to the reader:  A few months ago I was at a lunch meeting when one of my colleagues, a smart, sophisticated woman who’s published a lot, arrived late.  “Are you okay?” one of the staff asked.  “Yes,” this woman said.  “Just a little diarrhea.”  I glanced down at what I’d been eating—chocolate mousse topped with whipped cream and rainbow sprinkles—then pushed it away.

It was one of those moments when I wasn’t sure if what I was facing was cultural discord or just a cultural anomaly.  Was it normal for Hongkongers to discuss the most graphic details of their bodily functions with professional colleagues—over lunch, no less?  If so, then, great, because I’ve got some wonderful toe-cheese stories I’ve been looking to try out for a while now.  Or was this just an individual thing—one woman, smart, polished, well-dressed—who had unusual boundaries?

I still don’t know the answer to this question—certainly, no one’s mentioned bodily fluids to my recollection, but then, most of the conversations I’m around are in Cantonese.  I mention this story only because the following post deals with a recent trip to Mainland China and some food-related—um—issues.  Some of you may not actually want to read the post.  Fair enough.  The rest of you, though?  Seriously?  Time to put away the chocolate pudding.)

It’s 11:30 at night, Thursday, April 1st, 2010.  I’m lying in a shabby hotel in LiJiang China, in the Yunnan Provence.  Jamie is asleep in the bed beside me, and Will is sleeping on the floor on the other side of him.  I am lying in bed, doing my Lamaze breathing:  He he he he he, ha ha ha ha ha ha, he he he he he, ha ha ha ha.

I am doing this not because I am about to have a baby (appearances to the contrary) but because five hours earlier Lucy hurled her guts out all over the outside steps of a very nice restaurant. 

I have to say, she gave us fair warning:  when we sat down to dinner and spooned some rice, some chicken, some bacon, and some French fries on her plate, she just looked at it.  For a long time.  A really long time.  Then she said, “I have to go to the bathroom.”

We nodded and off she went.  We didn’t say anything because our mouths were too stuffed with food.  This was a fantastic meal, one of the best we’d ever had, Na’Xi food, from one of China’s 50+ ethnic minorities.  The starter was a soup with crunchy greens, noodles, egg, and lots of salt.  Next up was chicken, cooked in some sort of flavored oil and pasted with red hot chili peppers.  There were other dishes too, something with beef, something with pork, any one of which would have made itself a very satisfying entire meal back in the States, but which, now, two weeks later, I can barely recall.

The piece de resistance, though, was fermented greens stir-fried with dried bacon.  It was crunchy and salty, coated in a thin layer of oil.  The bacon was the most amazing thing I’d ever eaten:  maybe a centimeter thick and about three inches long, it looked like normal, uncooked bacon, except that it was crispy and flavorful, like eating monster bacon bits cooked in bacon grease, and dusted, ever so lightly, with teeny-tiny crumbs of crushed bacon. 

Sure, I ate some of the rice, and had some of the soup.  I tried the beef, avoided the pork, liked the chicken well enough.  But that bacon dish?  Man, I went to town on that ting:  I scooped up those greens and those dried strips and the occasional pepper and shoveled them into my mouth, taking a break only to sip the melon liqueur our guide, Habba, had ordered for Ellen and me.  Could life be any better? 

Now if this sounds greedy to you, well then, that’s probably because it was.  But keep in mind there was no resistance from Ellen to my gobbling down all that bacon:  she’s not a big fan of pork.  Will, meanwhile, won’t touch anything that isn’t white and the size of rice and that tastes exactly like rice.  And Jamie only has a stomach the size of a large grape, and was happily filling it with chicken.  Which meant, in effect, that the only person I had to share my favorite dish ever with was—

“Hey,” I said.  “Where’s Lucy?”

Ellen looked up from her soup.  “Still in the bathroom?”

I glanced around.  We were the only people in the restaurant except for a French couple.  Assuming they hadn’t eaten her—with the French, you never know—Lucy had to still be in the bathroom.  Her plate of fries and rice and everything else remained untouched.

Ellen and I looked at each other.  Huh.  Then we lowered our heads and dove back into the food. 

When Lucy eventually emerged she crept over to Ellen and whispered in her ear.  She didn’t feel well.  Ellen looked her over carefully.  Her face was pale, with olive green highlights around the jaw.  “Do you want to sit outside?”  Lucy nodded. 

“Don’t you want some french fries?” I asked.  She shook her head.  My heart dropped.  Lucy saying no to french fries is like Sarah Palin saying no to a lobotomy.  It just doesn’t happen.

But there it was, happening.  She sat in a courtyard just outside our window, laying her head on a wrought-iron table and closing her eyes.  

Almost everyone I’ve know who’s traveled in China has a story about getting sick.  China has some potent bugs:  hotels have signs in the bathrooms stating, “Water not for drinking!  Water poison!  Don’t drink the water!”  Our tour company went even further:  “When showering, be sure to turn your back to the spray, and to keep your mouth shut.  Should you ingest any water—even a drop—gargle immediately with battery acid in order to increase your chances of living.” 

We worried, now, with Lucy, but not overmuch:  we’d been in Asia for almost eight months, after all.  This was our third trip to the mainland, and none of us had ever been sick before.  Hell, we’d spent two weeks in Vietnam, and had come through unscathed.

By the time we finished dinner, Lucy had a little bit more color in her face and we figured she was fine.  Which she was, until we stepped out of the restaurant and she plopped down on the steps, spread her knees, and vomited between her feet. 

“Oh,” I said, ever the helpful parent.  Ellen, of course, pulled her hair out of the way, wiped her mouth with a tissue, and dabbed the sweat off her forehead. 

Lucy recovered quickly, at least until we got back to the hotel, where she threw up three more times in fairly rapid succession.  The last time, she was in the bath, splashing around.  I’d just moved Will’s stuff across the hall to my room, and was coming back to get his PJs, when Lucy said, “Daddy!  I threw up in my hair!”

“Really?” I said, keeping my voice light because I’d read once that it’s important to encourage your children when they discover new talents.  “That’s wonderful, honey.”

“Yeah,” she said, sitting up.  “It got—“ and then she paused, got on her knees in the tub, leaned over the toilet, and heaved again.

Never having toured with the Rolling Stones, this is the first time I’d seen someone sit in the bathtub and vomit into the toilet. I fled immediately, figuring if whatever she had was contagious, Ellen probably already had it, and I needed to get away so that we had at least one functioning adult the next day.

Except she didn’t.  Get it, that is.   Ellen.  Whatever it was making Lucy sick.

I did. 

I knew this almost already before Jamie and Will had gone to bed.  Every time I stood up or sat down or blinked, the room seemed to tilt precariously, swashing back and forth like an over-sized aquarium on a teeter-totter.  So I didn’t kiss them goodnight, and I didn’t linger in the hallway outside the room, reading a book by the dim lights.  No, I brushed my teeth, went to the bathroom, washed my hands, and put an empty garbage bin next to my bed.  And then I crawled between the sheets. 

I don’t think I slept at all.  Whatever it was came with a fever, so by 9:15 I was mentally arguing about the color of Lucy’s socks with my provost who was also Santa Claus and that dwarf from Fantasy Island.  Which wouldn’t have been so bad except that he kept shaking a shark in my face and saying, “Just say no to torpedoes son; nothing less ethical than a pair of 90th-ranked denim trousers.”

Even worse were the lucid moments, when I’d lie there, holding my stomach, shivering, trying hard not to think about scrambled eggs, or Tibeten yack cheese, or fermented greens with bacon, or any of the other things I’d eaten in the last 24 hours.  And trying hard not to think about Ellen across the hall, Ellen who’d handled Lucy’s vomit-sodden clothes and wiped her vomit-shmeared mouth and caressed her vomit-dripping hair.  Because if I was sick and Ellen was sick, then—damn, we were screwed.

Which lead me into even darker territory:  we were in LiJiang, after all, in Yunnan province, a hell of a long way from Hong Kong.  We had no insurance, as far as I knew, and even if we did, what good would it do in China?  Christ, we couldn’t even talk to the doctors, assuming we could find a hospital, which was doubtful, since no one in this damn place spoke English except for our guide, Habba, whom we were pretty sure was trying to rip us off by selling us a bunch of tickets we’d already paid for.   In short, if whatever we had was bad, we were screwed.

Twenty-five years ago, when I was traveling and working in Tanzania with my friend Peter, who has an annoyingly iron stomach, I picked up some sort of bug that had me lying in bed with a high fever for two days, sweating my way through dreams about tri-planes doing loop-de-loops and a British woman driving me around Milwaukee in a cream-colored Rolls Royce made out of Twizzlers.  Weeks later, when I went to the US Embassy (the one that was eventually bombed by Osama Bin Laden) to see the doctor, he took one look at my long hair, my scrappy beard, and my protruding ribcage and said, “Now I know what Jesus looked like when he was crucified.”

I laughed.  “Before or after?”

He just shook his head.  “Good question.”

That was scary.  I was halfway around the world, in a third-world country, unable to keep down food or water. 

But I was twenty, stupid, and not really aware of what was at stake. 

In LiJiang, on the other hand, I am 44, a parent, and bone-numbingly terrified that we have gotten ourselves into a situation where one of our kids could end up in a nasty hospital where whatever she had would pale in comparison to whatever she might catch.

It would have been better had I been able to go to sleep, but in my fevered stupor I wouldn’t allow myself to do that, because I knew the minute I did, I’d wake up again, vomiting. 

And let’s face it, folks:  vomiting sucks.  I don’t know anybody who likes to lean over a bucket or toilet and hack and gag until they can feel their esophagus rubbing against the roof of their mouth, all for the pleasure of having something that tastes like battery acid mixed with prune juice and chicken broth churn its way up your throat and into your mouth.

That said, we all know the upside of puking.  Even Will, who’s only 9, said to Lucy—after her first hurl outside the restaurant—“Bet you feel better, now, right?”  Because it’s true:  if pre-puking is horrible, and puking is truth that God hates us, then post-puking is kind of—well—peaceful.  Our stomachs are calm for the moment, the sweat on our skin starts to cool us, and we suddenly feel our bodies drawn blissfully toward sleep.  Sure, we know there’s a good chance we’ll be heaving again in an hour or two—but for the time being, post-puking almost makes pre- and mid-puking seem kind of worth it. 

Kind of.

The problem is, I can’t get myself past the pre-puking stage.  Which means I’m trapped forever in the purgatory of anticipatory fear regarding the aforementioned heaving, esophagal-mouthtop rubbing, etc. etc.  It doesn’t help that, over the years, I’ve somehow learned how to breathe my way through the waves of nausea that would--in a less-control-driven human being—result in the inevitable upsurge and post-partum bliss. 

It also doesn’t help, of course, that I’m not just a writer, but a writer who thinks too much.  As a result, in addition to lying in bed, feeling like my lower intestines are about to hurdle out of my body through my mouth, and like the world is going to end in a my-family-will-be-die-by-the-plague kind of way, I’m also thinking about how I’m going to narrate all of this later, when we get back to Hong Kong, for the blog.

You heard me. 

This is the problem, of course, with being a blogger, or any kind of non-fiction writer, or for that sake, one of those people who spends too much time on Face Book, updating their every move—“Had cheese sandwich for lunch again!  OMG!!  Will it never end????  LOL!!!  ; ).  And I, of course, am all three of these things. 

So in addition to lying in bed, trying hard not to hack a liver out of my nose, I’m worrying about Ellen and tomorrow and our 3-hour flight to Beijing, and next week and our tour and six days worth of Chinese food—and wondering if I know enough synonyms for vomit to get through a post on this subject alone. 

So there I am, curled up in bed, going, “He he he he he heave, hurl, gag, ha ha ha ha ha upchuck, throw up, regurgitate, he he he he,” wondering just how the hell long this can go on, when suddenly I realize that things are about to take a turn.  Not necessarily a turn for the worse, mind you.  Just a turn.  In the other direction.  So, down, not up.

I could, of course, wax poetic for another page or two on all of this, um, end of things, but to be honest, I don’t have the stomach or the patience for it.  So let me just point out a few things about diarrhea: 

1)      It smells. 

2)      Bad.

3)      When you’re already sick, smelling bad things is about the last thing you want to do. 

4)      I’m never going to eat eggs again.


Finally, of course, I gave in, and let things reach their natural conclusion.  I heaved several large, bacon-flavored, water balloons worth of vomit into the bathroom garbage can.  Then, fastidious Lutheran that I am, I dumped the can into the toilet, rinsed it in the tub a few times, and flushed.  Then I washed my face, gargled, and crawled back to bed, where I collapsed into a sweaty but relieved sleep.

The rest of the night passed uneventfully.  I wasn’t sick again, though when the boys and I woke up, I still felt as though Muhammad Ali had been using my abdomen for a warm-up.  Across the hall, I could see light streaming beneath Lucy and Ellen’s door, and when I tapped, Lucy opened, her face pink, her eyes bright, her hair free of half-digested corn on the cob.  Ellen took one look at me, then put me into Lucy’s bed and took the two of them across the hall to get dressed.  I slept through breakfast and woke about mid-morning to find a Sprite beside my bed.  A few sips made me feel better, so I showered and dressed, and the five of us went out into the cool morning to walk along one of the canals to the Black Dragon Pool. 

LiJiang, for the record, is an amazingly beautiful place.  It rests just below Jade Snow Dragon Mountain, in a lush valley at the eastern-most end of the Himalayas.  The mountains are astounding:  sharp and black, with snow clinging to the cloud-dusted slopes.

The town itself feels a little bit like Disneyland.  Until the late 90s, no one in China gave LiJiang a second thought, not even the people who lived there.  But then there was an earthquake in 1996, measuring a devastating 7.0 on the Richter scale, and when the rescue teams showed up, they were shocked to find so much natural beauty.  Since then LiJiang has been rebuilt, and wandering around in the “Old Town,” center, you’re simultaneously struck by how it seems impossible that so many people in one town could sell so much overpriced crap, and by how really beautiful the canals and the flowering trees and the buildings with their red walls and black-tiled roofs are. 

The Black Dragon Pool is surrounded by a classical garden:  stone walkways lined with shade trees, orchids and song birds, an old temple where thousands of people have bought “prayer locks” and clasped them to a fence, where they’ll remain forever, devoid of key-holes. 

On the far side of the lake is a small pagoda and a decorative building or two.  All of it is very pretty, particularly when the sky is clear and you can see Jade Snow Dragon Mountain off in the distance, looking both forbidding and hopelessly beautiful. 

We moved slowly, both Lucy and I feeling a little tender.  Settling on a bench on one side of the lake, we soaked up the morning sun until a huge group of Chinese game over and shouted “Hello!  Hello!” at us until our heads ached. 

We drifted on, pausing at an ornate building with a high roof supported by tall red pillars and decorative blue and yellow trim.  We stared at it for a while, trying to figure out what it was, then Ellen pointed to a carefully lettered sign:  “Smoking Area.”

After that, we crossed an arched bridge.  The water below was greenish-rgay, even with the sun on it.  Even so, we could see the curving shadows of decorative carp.  Once or twice a big one would drift to the surface, mouth gaping, eye peering at us as if to say, “Where the hell’s the popcorn?” 

I love these fish.  I’ve come to believe that someone who has fish like this probably will live a long time, that watching something this beautiful glide and turn so peacefully is a sort of meditation, slowing the heart, deepening the breath.

Watching them now, on that sunny April morning when it was still cool and damp and you could smell the decaying leaves and fecund soil, I tried to tell myself that if pre-puking sucks and post-puking is bliss, then post-post puking is almost heaven.  Certainly, I remember this from my hard-partying college days (all three of them), when I would emerge from a night of debauchery of one form or another (thank you, Jessica Lindus, from the bottom of my heart) to a clear October morning, the leaves turning on the hillsides, the sky a porcelain blue, the chill air making you feel that much more alive.  Moments like that, everything that happened the night before just enhanced the beauty of being alive, made you almost glad for the nightmarish darkness.

Standing there, Lucy beside me, I watched the fish, trying to feel moved by their beauty, trying to feel appreciation for the fact that I was alive, that none of us were too sick, that Sprite was plentiful and cheap.  Surely, I thought to myself, life is good?  Surely, I’m grateful for the opportunity to be in this amazing country, to see this amazing natural beauty—the giant mountains, the small but graceful fish?

But no.  If being sick is bad—and it is—then being sick on vacation, when you’re in a foreign country, when you’re away from the comforts of home and a doctor you know will take care of you, and food that’s not floating in grease and laced with spices that seem dark and dry on your tongue—if being sick is bad, then being sick under these circumstances just plain sucks. 


Anonymous said...

You made heaving your guts up sound like poetry in motion - well done! Enjoy your blog - so it's tennis and whiteboy! Think you should try and publish some of this - us gweilo/gweipo's like reading about adventures here in HK/China!! (Ashley from down the way)

Gavin said...

you're sure it's chiang kai shek? i would have thought it was mao's revenge on the paper tigers of the west. instead of power growing out of the barrel of a gun, perhaps it's power out of your guts? so far only mild doses of food poisoning after 18 months--but we haven't been as remote as you yet.