News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

Chapter 11

I woke up in the district hospital. The establishment had a good reputation for its doctors and services. It had been founded by a Buddhist philanthropic association and had excellent facilities due to good management and high profitability. The latter came in part because it was a large cash business and thus excellent for money-laundering and tax dodging. It was a favorite resource of politicians in particular. You could invest in it, you could donate to it, and so forth and for a small surcharge - voilĂ ! - your money was clean.

The CEO swathed himself in Buddhist attire and lore when on the premises of the main temple, but traveled around our town in a well-fitting suit, driven around by chauffeur in the back of a fine Mercedes. A new model every year. He was proud, happy, successful in every sense of the modern world. He had a sex life. This meeting of capitalism and Buddhism was referred to as flower Buddhism and, despite the pie-in-the-sky puritanical complaints of some, it seemed to work just fine in the right hands. It’s hard to argue with success, though so many traditionalists, socialists, and other sorts of eternally pathologically dissatisfied dreamy dreamers do.

I moved my head and looked around at the crab-grass green drapes, the sallow walls, the lumpy tiles. It was very 1950s in that the establishment felt so much like an institution in the vernacular sense: it was functional but not ergonomic, it offered square boxy rooms, clean lines, and plenty of shy, dusty shuffling peasants and neo-urbanites who were more at home here but who also wore clothes that didn’t quite fit. The place was sufficiently clean, in the Chinese manner, which is to say that there was loose grainy crud here and there, the occasional smear on the walls, plus cobwebs where the walls met the ceiling, high out of reach of a cleaning staff that was presumably short, short-sighted, or short of elbow grease. The air was redolent with iodine or peroxide, but most of all, most noticeable, was the heavy dampness. It was fortunate that the room was a bit warm.

I leaned forward and the stretching of my neck reminded me to pay attention and make sure the rest of me was okay. I sat up promptly in a panic. But I wasn't paralyzed or missing any limbs. Everything was in order. I looked over and saw Mikey. I ventured a smile, until I realized he was scowling.

"Mikey? Are you OK? Hey, am I OK? How do I look?"

"You stupid sod. I was just getting warmed up, I had a good chance. Until you fucked up."

"I beg your pardon? Fucked what up?"

"Why did you hit me? You idiot! We got clobbered."

I stammered, "Awe shit. Really?" I bit my upper lip and tried to remember. It was all still fuzzy. I made a snap decision to do the Chinese thing and just go through the motions. I'd piece together what really happened and what I really thought later. For now, I deadpanned and said, "Sorry about that. I didn't know what was happening. Somebody hit me on the side of the head. Everything went out of focus. I was just trying to help. I seem to remember thinking somebody was coming to attack me."

"You moron. I was sideling over to you so that we could face them back to back, when you smacked me a good one in the eye. I couldn't see anything. I was helpless. They gave it to me good and hard. The gutless bastards attacked me all at once."

"Well, you should have left the drunk alone. You never should have hit him. If you hadn't started it, they wouldn't have had to end it."

A nurse came in, very businesslike, in her mid-thirties. Retaining the short childish steps of her early youth, she was yet confident, in control. Impatiently she said, "I've come to take your temperature. Open wide." She took my temperature and then said, "You had a bit of a fever last night but you seem OK now."

She went to toss the thermometer into the bin. Another duty completed, just another temperature. Given the waste inherent in this single-use of the appliance, I couldn’t help wonder whether the thermometer was going to be thrown out or recycled by a shady medical supplier. She turned, we were already out of sight and out of mind, and she was already leaving when Mikey complained, "Well what about me? Don't you want to take my temperature?"

She looked at me and asked, "What did your friend say?" I told her and she said, "Tell him to shut his mouth. I'm not a waitress. He's fine. He's ready to leave. And so are you." She left in a huff. She was busy. She was a professional. Or was she determined not to give the foreigners special treatment, not to give in to the pathological obsequiousness, eternal flirting, or the naturally healthy curiosity of so many of her younger, less devoted, less experienced, less professional peers? The younger generation was so easily distracted. Either way, like most nurses outside of porn videos, she had little patience with patients. Half the paying customers were hypochondriacs. And in a country where sympathy trips were very popular, another quarter of the paying customers were head cases.

Johnson came in just as I was saying to Mikey, "The nurse says you're OK. We're ready to leave I guess."

I sat up in the damp sheets, but failed to find the expected, and these days reassuring, scent of mold that was a part of my new identity; that was part of the scheme of things that was part of this adopted tropical country, this beautiful frowsy town. Johnson came over and shook my hand. "Look at me. Can you see me? How many fingers am I holding up?"

I frowned in disgust, "Give us a break, will you Johnson? We're fine. Just a bit of an altercation that's all. We weren’t mangled."

He took my knee-jerk meanness in stride, not noticing it in his concern, treating me as if I was a relative, all sins and transgressions to be forgiven. I had earned my right to complain, to offend. He exhaled: "Well, I'm glad you’re OK. It would've been dreadful if you'd actually been really hurt. We'd have real trouble replacing you." I was warmed by his mercenary spirit. He was just being practical. And predictable. Everything had its worth, it's specific value. In many ways, this made talking with Johnson so eminently easy. You knew where you stood. You knew what his priorities were. There was no bullshit. He got to the point. You knew how to negotiate. And everything was negotiable.

He shook my hand firmly. Now that this awkward business was done, now that his term of professional worry and personal anguish was over, it was time for a minor reward to lift his spirits. To put the day back on an even keel. He said, "Well, looks like I'm going to join you for a bit anyway. You still need to get some rest. So relax for a while." He trotted out happily between the blinds, shouting back at us "I'll be right back. I need them to wheel in a table for me."

Mikey exclaimed, "Bloody hell. Don't I get any attention. Or am I just a piece of meat?" The question answered itself. His sentimentality had little place here. You had to earn your worth. The hospital was just another private concern and he was just another customer in the puling crowd. In this case, an oversized, scruffy and manifestly belligerent customer.

Johnson was back in a jiffy with a doctor. The doctor brought with him a reclining bed, behind which was mounted an IV assembly with a bag of clear liquid. Johnson got up on the bed, and when he was comfortable, the doctor began rubbing his inner elbow with alcohol and cotton, before finding the vein and plunging the needle in.

Mikey decided to weasel in on Johnson's good side and asked him in a concerned tone, "Are you sick? What happened?"

"Me? Oh, I'm just hot. It's ferocious outside and the air-conditioning doesn't seem to be working in this ward. IV's are cheap. There's nothing like one to make you comfortable in the heat."

I said, "With an IV? You can't be serious? That's hardly an appropriate use of the facilities is it?"

The doctor introduced himself in halting English, "Ah, you speak English very well. What is your name?"

I took him in with a glance and noted the gray brush-cut, the smudged glasses with the yellowy-pink streaking that indicated the scratch-proof layer of plastic coating was giving up the ghost and oxidizing. He was dressed in a drab tie, a paunch and had a pair of pragmatic, no-slip sneakers clashing with his dress pants. I presumed nylon or rayon socks inside. Not an encouraging specimen. One of the old school quacks who received his training in the military, where loyalty, taking orders, and bogus honor were more important than professional competence. He had been ready for the retirement home ever since first taking up his practice.

We ignored him and Johnson continued, "Don't they do this in Canada? They should. Everyone does it these days. If someone comes down with a fever, and can't stand the heat, get the doctor to give you an IV. It's covered by the national insurance anyway."

"But surely that's an abuse of precious medical resources. Surely you're taking up space that could be better applied for the benefit of the genuinely needy."

"Oh, come on Edward. Give me a break." He rolled his eyes. We were being a couple of bumpkins. We'd failed to stay abreast of global developments. We didn't realize what age we were living in. No wonder we were out here in the boonies working at his school.

The doctor saw his chance to cut in again. He wanted a piece of the action. He wanted to practice his English. He wanted some strokes. Preceding his words with a perfunctory belch, he inquired, "So, where you come from?" He squeezed out a small fart to make himself comfortable.

Nobody said anything and it got quiet in an awkward way. I made the mistake of feeling sorry for him, which was precisely what he wanted. I cut the ice by replying without any particular enthusiasm, "I'm from Canada, he's from Australia. I gather that our condition is fine. The nurse said we can go. So, thanks for your help anyway. We're out of here."

But he wasn't that easily persuaded. "It takes doctor to be sure. Let me take a look you for to be sure."

He felt my forehead, and his hand moved firmly around to my temple. He found a bump, depressed the swelling, and I squealed. He was one of the rough and ready school, one of the cheapskates that enjoyed producing pain and excused the lack of tranquilizers with the implication or outright statement that one was a man and thus didn't need them. There are plenty of earnest doctors in this country, but there are also a lot of these half-trained amateurs left over from the early martial law era Gilded Age of get-rich-quick quack practitioners.

He pronounced, "That not so good."

But we just wanted to leave. "Look, it's not a problem. We're just on our way out."

But he was already gone. He came back 30 seconds later with a younger nurse. He gave her orders in English, not Chinese. "Take his pulse. Check the side of his head. Take his temperature again."

Did she understand him? Did it matter? And then he squawked at her in Taiwanese, giving directions that I didn't understand.

All this conspicuous lavishing of bogus attention was followed by his pulling open the drapes to our section and introducing the rest of ward to the prodigies of his English studies: "So you from Canada, is that it? I been there many times. So you must be from Vancouver, right?” People started showing up sure enough. Shy yokels, moms and pops with bad teeth and worse factory export clothing. I rolled my eyes. “Wonderful place. Canada has great - how do you say?” And he lingered, savoring the next word to come, the impressive multi-syllables and potential for mellifluousness if the pronunciation was apt, and then released it, “atmosphere… It's great place to retire. I envy you very much. So what do you think of Canada?"

What a bore. I guessed that he’d probably worked with the US forces stationed in Taiwan 35 years prior. It appeared that he'd been making a one-trick pony show of his English proficiency ever since. With Taiwan's high population, the pressure to get ahead of the competition was intense. In lieu of talent, gimmicks would have to do, and often did do.

But he was in charge, and insubordination was something traditionally punished by death. Of course, those days were long gone, but the ghosts of tradition march on and are only diverted slowly. There was a strong residue of moral compulsion which made most people fawning and unwilling to stand up for their rights and dignity. Half the time, it seemed that interaction in Chinese was all about either establishing or losing one's dignity. Usually the latter it seemed, as there was always someone higher up in one of the myriad hierarchies that everyone was a part of, or should I say, subordinate to.

Some of this was beginning to rub off on me as well. After all, I was living here. When in doubt it was usually wise to do as the Romans do. So rather than telling him to buzz off, I took the middle road: "Sorry. I'm not from the West Coast. I've never been to Vancouver. Anyway, we just want to leave. Thank you for your attention."

Johnson pretended he wasn't there; now that he'd brought this quack in, he tried to play the role of innocent bystander.

The nurse returned with a package of medicine. I opened it, and saw what appeared to be clear yellow capsules of vitamin E and something suspiciously like one of the local sweetened gastric medicines. It was all smoke and mirrors from beginning to end.

The doctor went over to annoy Mikey, “So, you must be an American."

Mikey frowned. "Not half. I'm from Australia. Do I look like a bloody American?” Looking at me and Johnson, he glowered, face reddening, “Why is it that English speakers in Taiwan are always called Americans?"

The doctor chuckled insincerely to bring himself back to stage center, and passed more wind out the back end in the process. "So! Australia is also wonderful place. People there are very rich.”

“Tell that to the abos.”

“It's also an excellent place for retire.”

“I'm planning on retiring in Taiwan.”

“Many Taiwanese go there, go to Sydney."

"Look I'm not from Sydney, mate. I'm from Alice Springs." Mikey didn't know whether to keep talking to this clown or ignore him. I didn't dare give him any cues, because I didn't want to bring the good doctor's attention back to me. Johnson was saying nothing, because if he opened his mouth, it probably would've been to vent his temper. Getting on the doctor's bad side might be bad for business.

The doctor inquired again, "So, Australia is a fine place, don't you think?" He belched. All this digestive action made me wonder about the time. Inside hospitals, it’s often impossible to tell. Was it post-breakfast, lunch or dinner?

The doctor’s question was inane, but Mikey's sucking up a put him in a frame of mind that convinced him he had to go through the motions. "Yeah, I guess so. It could be worse. Have you been to the north? All kinds of aborigines up there. Kroc's too. The saltwater crocodiles are huge." Mikey was beginning to get into it, his memory recalling former adventures in the outback's heat.

But it was now the doctor's turn to be bored. He frowned and said nothing. But he just stood there. Demanding satisfaction. Mikey looked at him, and then looked at me. He was confused. I decided to save him by taking up the slack and giving the doctor what he really wanted to hear after all this stilted interaction, this drowsy blather: "Taiwan's a great place too. That's why we're here. And this town is wonderful too.”

This satisfied the inferiority complex that had been compelled in a guilty Chinese patriot who’d given up traditional Chinese medicine for the Western variety. There were many unfortunates like him. He’d given up the shamanism, poultices, and hearsay that are part and parcel of all early medicine, for a more science-based empirical approach. But the approach was a body of technique that overlaid a mindset which, in the case of the doctor, was still pastoral, feudal, primeval, confused, needy, and profoundly distraught. Growing up in a luminous mental world of magic and magicians, the grey world of science, its technique and technicians, was profoundly disappointing and eternally dissatisfying. It just wasn’t fun.

Having got the chore out of the way, I looked over to Johnson and said, "Look, Mikey and me are going to get out of here. We'll catch up with you again back at the school."

Johnson got up on one arm and said, "Hold on a second. Tell me. You two had quite the adventure last night. What happened?"

We could run out on the doctor, but not on the boss. So I said, "One of those hysterical cinema drunks was getting really mouthy last night and Mikey just couldn't take it anymore. He came over and started shouting right at us. Saliva was flying in my face. It was humiliating. Something had to be done. I can't blame Mikey. I suppose I was on the verge of an explosion myself. Anyway, well, Mikey? Do you want to tell him?"

He frowned, not relishing the potential for humiliation. But it wasn't hard to guess that he'd rather be in control of the delivery. But Mikey, despite his overblown tendency to violent yammering, was not unintelligent or lacking in resilience. He said, "Well, I suppose I have to hand it to them. I figured they'd just take off and ignore what was happening. I guess I have to respect the fact that they came down to protect that old man. He was a real mouthy pain in the ass. He was surely surprised when I whacked him one. But he didn't run either. I was really pissed then, but now, when I think about it calmly, I guess they gave a pretty good performance all things considered."

He had started out with the intent of sucking up to Johnson. But by the end of his spin and spiel, it was clear that he was sincere. He’d persuaded himself.

Johnson wasn't interested anymore. Like many self-made wealthy men, he loved his toys, "I love these IV's. Nothing like them to cool you down. It's like a trickle of winter that starts in from your arm and courses around your whole body. You should really try it some time. Terrific what technology can do."

Toys didn't fascinate me. I was more interested in the legal repercussions to the cinema riot. "So was anybody arrested, Johnson? Did anyone file a complaint against Mikey?" I belatedly realized my tactlessness and looked over at Mikey and added, "I mean, Mikey and me?"

He played with the plastic tubing and looked fondly at the bag of saline solution. "Huh? Why would anybody file charges? Don't be silly. It was just a minor scuffle. Happens all the time. Neither one of you was hurt right?"

I'd been knocked out, and my head was a little woozy. But once I went down, I’d been left alone as Mikey became the center of attention, the vortex of the lazy, almost non-violent frenzy. Nobody had even bothered with me. I turned to MIkey. "How about you, Mikey, you're alright aren't you?"

"I'll survive. I took a few shots to the stomach and somebody kicked me in the ass once I was down on the floor. Right on the tailbone. Not fun. But, all in all, they were pretty bloody civil about it. In a weird way, it was kind of like friends, you know? When you get in the bar, and get a bit of liquid courage down your throat, you want to fight somebody. Anybody. Just for a bit of fun and excitement. To let your hair down. With your mates. Nothing serious. But I suppose if some foreigner had smacked an old drunk in the cinema back in Oz, he might have got a pretty good hiding from the crowd.” He shrugged. “I guess I can't complain."

It was surprising to hear this from Mikey. But then again, when I thought about it, after the end of the First World War, many British soldiers had a new respect for the German soldiery. Although the British and French were allies, they still disliked one another after the war. So, Mikey's reaction had its precedent, and, like all things that don't seem to make sense at first glance, it simply had to. There's a logic to everything if you look hard enough.

When we wobbled back to the school, we were surprised to find, low and behold, the drunk from the cinema. He was there with his wife, both in their Sunday best. Their conception of which being dark, thick clothes, like woolen winter suits from the 1930’s. The rural theory being that good quality meant built to last. He was in cheap vinyl loafers, she in scuffed nail-polish pink heels. Their university-age daughter was in tow. Pretty with a smile showing the small children’s teeth that arrived from the rural low-calcium diet. They were talking animatedly to Shelly and Madonna, and as we came through the door, they saw us and got up.

The drunk gave us a deep bow and followed up with, "I'm very sorry. Very sorry. After drinking, it's easy to lose control and get chaotic.” He had a twitch around his right eye, something common to right-handed people under pressure. I looked at his wife and the unease this caused her made both of her eyes blink and twitch, as if a circuit had been interrupted. I felt sorry for her and smile awkwardly, for which she was grateful. Her husband was still yammering, but we had to stifle our irritation and express that the effort was appreciated. He said, “It's easy to make one wrong move; one that's very out of character. That's what happened. It wasn't on purpose. It wasn't personal. But I can hardly remember anyway." Then a forced chuckling.

What to do?

Mikey and I grimaced. Mikey didn't understand a word of the man's Chinese of course. But he didn't have to in order to understand the rudiments of what was taking place. He simply wanted to pound him. I was partial to violence too. But it was one of those weird cross-cultural situations where you really didn't know what to do. Where, if you acted on the situation as if it had occurred back at home, you knew somehow that your actions would only exacerbate things. That the blame would move from the offender to the offended.

I looked at the girls, and both Madonna and Shelly were beaming approvingly. If they were happy, and given that they were far better judges and bellwethers of the situation, I felt that we had no choice but to accept the situation.

I said to the old man, "OK then. Just forget it. Please try to be more responsible in future. Both of us ended up in the hospital, you know. Something serious could've happened."

The man began saying, "Oh no. That's impossible. Nothing crazy could've happened. You must understand..." At this point he was cut off by his wife exclaiming, "This foreigner's Chinese is very good. How did he learn such good Mandarin? Has he lived in Taiwan for longtime? Is he married?"

Squawk, squawk, squawk. The girls saw an opportunity to divert the situation to neutral, even positive ground; to move the situation to a more advantageous location; to save us, save the school’s reputation, and achieve closure, while winning our and Johnson’s favor and putting us all in their debt. A win-win situation from their perspective. But you get what you pay for and nothing comes for free. Shelley looked at me and winked. I stared calmly at her, tacitly accepting the terms of the deal.

The girls began competing over the right to vouch for my fluency and intelligence. It would've been embarrassing if it had not been so absurd. As so often happened in verbal situations, the women took entirely over. The ex-drunk was sidelined. He’d been here before. He was more or less inured to his fate. Maybe this was part of his rage that night. In his fifties, it was clear that, like many other elderly men, he had already turned over the reins of the relationship to his wife, as so often happened. I knew that when they went to leave, the wife would be in the lead with the husband two or three steps behind, trailing like a child on an imperceptible leash.

The ladies were all on automatic pilot. The chatter was basically fixed, the questions and the replies already well rehearsed. I was just a prop. The elderly gentlemen, Mikey and myself, were far offstage. The women's enthusiasm was genuine however. Complicated people eternally have trouble with the simple truth that simple people enjoy their ruts. They go round and round, the faster the better. They never seem to tire of chasing their tails. Just like the simple people watching afternoon television soaps back home, or the terrifyingly easily amused fanatics who are endlessly mesmerized by endless sporting events. The mind is indeed a terrible thing to waste.

I decided to slip out and check my mail. Mikey caught my arm and whispered, “Oh no you don't. You're not leaving me here with these birds.” Security in numbers, we exited together, leaving the ex-drunk alone to his fate.

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