The first week of teaching has had its ups and downs, but not in any way I expected. Sometimes the differences in culture and personality are extreme, and, I don’t know, confusing, depressing maybe. Most of what I have found here is amazing, but it is a trip sometimes.
I started the week with kung fu every day. I am learning Xingyiquan now, one of the four internal styles of kung fu. I am learning quickly, and the people here have a tendency to call me “clever.” The translation is specific to someone who is a fast learner rather than the more vague English term. Xingyi is a lot of fun, very simple and yet extremely difficult. To know kung fu is not to do kung fu.
We train in a parking lot near the MacDonald’s, mostly locals who are older than I am, but also a few students train with us when they can. Medical school takes up a lot of their time.
I seem to have found a place that is home once again. Excellent kung fu, no real order or rules, just practice when and were we can. A lot of the best teachers I know have taught out of garages and parking lots. They are hard to find, but they always feel like home to me.
A couple of the men there also teach Bagua, so I usually practice that with them after my teacher has to go to his clinic hours or the school. One of them is also teaching me how to use a staff, just basic techniques but different from what I learned in Taipei. Sometimes we practice body hardening, or hook swords, but all of them are my teachers in some way. It’s like when I first started learning back in San Diego, half a dozen teachers and only a few students.
On Tuesday there was no class because it was raining, well, raining for Lanzhou. The ground was wet but it was barely more than mist in the air. The Doctor invited me to his clinic hours to help teach some English to the students in their residency, so I wound up there for three hours seeing patients. That was hard in its own way.
Medicine here is very different from back home. I might be allowed to sit in with the patients because it is a teaching hospital and the patients are warned that people might be there to learn from them, but there is far more too it than that. No one washes their hands between patients. No one wears gloves. The first two rules are always personal safety and patient safety, but the potential for the spread of disease can be scary.
We would also never have our personal phones out to take pictures of patients or their medical history. That alone could guarantee you never work in medicine again, but here it is common. I have heard other volunteers complain about having their photo taken in public, but it is just part of the culture here. Your personal privacy and rights are secondary to the desires and needs of the group. They take pictures of patients and injuries endlessly, and no one seems to think there is anything unusual about it.
That difference between personal freedom and the group mentality can be stark sometimes. We had a variety of patients, about a third with some form of cancer. Some getting better, some worse. All of them had been treated with both Chinese and Western medicine, so the students had a lot of language they needed to learn. I sat there taking basic notes on my phone so I could write-up more details later for the students when an older man came in.
The patient was around my parent’s age, with an aggressive form of cancer in his right lung. Two months ago there was one tumor one centimeter in diameter. This month, there were five tumors three and a half centimeters in diameter. I assume the patient cannot read. I assume this because he didn’t know what was wrong, he didn’t know he had cancer. His son was in the room dealing with all the medical information, and he had not told his father.
I know that happened in America before the HIPAA laws were enacted. I remember stories about it in medical school, lawsuits and arguments. But to see it, to know it is happening, is horrifying. I understand why someone would hide that. I understand that to protect their loved one from fear when nothing more can be done might be considered mercy. I understand the compassion, and what it must be like to hide something like that. It’s still horrifying.
What do we really have beyond our life and our death? Everything else is just borrowed, shared, gained, and lost. What truly defines us beyond how we choose to live, and how we choose to die? Death is not something we discuss much in America. We make it comical, lustful, or horrifying, but we rarely make it real. I have just hit the age when death is coming up to the horizon, and even with practice and study I don’t really understand my place in reference to it. But when it comes, it will be mine. Something I cannot truly share, however many people are there, even though everyone dies.
I don’t know how to really deal with it. There is nothing to fight, or make better or worse, just something that I, as the outsider, understand but cannot agree with. That’s the first time I have come across something like this outside of the States. I’m sure it won’t be the last. I did well, so I will be there every Tuesday from now on, helping the Doctor and his students learn English.
The rest of the week was easy after that. Class on Wednesday and Thursday, basic introductions and getting to know the students. The semester will be easy enough, and the hospital work gives me ideas on what to teach the post-graduate students. Whatever trouble they have in the hospital I can address in the classes.
Being here is everything I wanted it to be, even though I didn’t really know that it was what I wanted. I just go back and forth between the surreal and the real. I told one of the teachers that I needed turmeric, so she bought me tumeric, black pepper, white pepper, Sichuan pepper, five spice, a bag of star anise, cooking wine, vinegar, soy sauce, salt, sugar, chicken bouillon, sesame oil, bean paste, and tofu milk. I have no idea how to cook with most of those items. I feel bad for taking it, but at the same time it is awesome. It’s the kind of gift I don’t really know how to properly accept.
That is one of the strange things about being here. I’m not used to gifts. I told Blue, one of the Xingyi teachers that I wanted to buy a spear, so he gave me one. Something I would never really expect in America is common practice here. Pushing each other out of the way to pay for food, buying more than is needed, always trying to be humble and generous.
It’s not that Americans aren’t generous or humble, it’s just not really a cultural goal. Mild arrogance and personal property tend to be harder lines, but people will move heaven and earth for you when you really need it. It tends to be less of a show, I think, because the show can easily become arrogant in its humility.
I am glad for this week, and all that came with it. I’m glad when it’s hard, and I’m glad when it’s easy. This is why I really here, to experience and try and understand the world beyond my home.
(UPDATE): So, someone close to me who has been a nurse forever tells me that hiding illness from parents happens in the USA sometimes too. I guess I was never in the field long enough to see it myself. It’s horrifying that it happens back home too.