I was on the kind of high that’s only possible when you’re jet lagged, dehydrated, and two hours’ deep into your new adopted country. It’s 9am and heat and sunlight are pouring into my sparkling apartment. Plastic wrap is still covering the bed, the refrigerator, the table, chairs, bedspread, sheets, and the door handle to my patio. I know I could unpack, I’m thinking, the students who dropped me off told me to take a rest, but all I can think about is the fact that I don’t have any drinking water and I’m so thirsty.
I arrived in China at about 5:20am that morning; September 14, 2014. There was no TSA at the airport and nobody sent my luggage through a scanning machine. It was simple, I got off the plane, grabbed my bags, got my passport stamped, and walked out; all while searching furiously for wifi and texting my friends. I arrived early. The students who were sent to pick me up were late. I bought a coffee from McDonalds. I waited.
When they did come, they were all giggles and apologies and questions.
Why would you chose to live way out in China’s countryside?
How much Chinese do you speak? What was Korea like? Can we live with you?
Giggle, giggle, giggle.
Both students are part of a club on campus which volunteers to help foreign teachers. In return, they get to practice their oral English.
We pulled onto campus and I don’t know how to describe the place except to say that I felt like Tennessee Williams would pop out at any moment to tell me that time is the longest distance between any two places. The truth is that Guangdong, China, where I live, often feels to me like the deep South (of the United States). The giant trees with their gnarled, twisted roots and branches dripping with vines, the murky reservoir dressed in lily pads, the red brick and rod-iron balconies on the library. There was a time when I thought he was right about distance, but Tennessee Williams never lived in China.
It felt like a dream. And I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t rest even. I really was on some sort of ridiculous travel, jet-leg, exhaustion high when I left my apartment to go to the village across the street for something to drink, and maybe some food.
I walk out of my apartment in the blinding morning light. Through the gate, I wave at the guard in little guardhouse and he waves back. From somewhere near the football fields I can hear chanting. I follow the sounds and within a few minutes, no less than 3,000 new freshman dressed in army gear are cutting my path diagonally with theirs. And they’re jogging.
Me in my pink dress. Them dressed like soldiers from head to foot. Honestly, I was terrified.
I return to my apartment about an hour later with two apples, three bananas, one grapefruit, and one bottle of Gatorade.
Now I’m thinking about writing my co-worker in Korea to tell her how cheap the fruit in China is, how many varieties of apples they have, how I can’t wait to try dragon fruit. I’m thinking how I need to get film for my camera, how I regret not bringing any. I’m thinking about how Jess used to eat grapefruit every morning in the office, how I wish I had brought scissors to open this grapefruit, how I’m so glad I thought to bring a brand-new pairing knife in my luggage, how I’m not going all the way back to the village to buy scissors now to open it. Damn plastic. But look, if I just pull it gently, it’s already cutting through the plastic. I can just slide it out, if I do it slowly. It seems to be working, wow this knife is sharp…
I don’t even feel it happen but then I look down and see a new, thick, crimson bracelet on my wrist. Deep red, deep down, I can see the torn flesh and the open gap. I’m thinking: People try and fail to do this when they’re really depressed. But I’m not depressed. And I’m not in some back bedroom in middle America where the paramedics can come when I dial three numbers. I’m alone in my apartment on my first day in China.
What if I hit an artery?
Wrap it in something, I’m thinking. Something you won’t want to wear again. But I want to wear everything again, don’t I? All these clothes! What to ruin? Does it matter? It doesn’t matter, I tell myself. What about this grey polka-dotted tank top? It’s so long and thick. No, get the orange one, you’re bound to want to wear the orange one less often. No wifi. No phone, and the courtyard downstairs is empty. What if I die before I ever get to teach a class here? Wrap it tight, it’s that good stretchy material. Grab purse, grab keys. Suddenly I remember that the students who dropped me off had yelled to a guy going into a building across from mine. He said he lived on the fourth floor and I could stop by anytime. Should I go find him? But it’s four floors, what if I faint? I might faint. I feel like I’m going to faint. God, this heat. The security guard at the gate? Yes.
He didn’t speak any English, so I unwrapped my wrist and showed him and he threw his arms up and seemed to know what to do. A policeman on a motorcycle showed up and he didn’t speak any English either.
You want me to climb on your motorcycle with you? With my bleeding hand? What if I faint and fall off? No choice. He pats the seat and grunts something in Chinese. So now I’m on the back of his motorcycle and now I’m thinking about the Philippines. I’m thinking about the first time I ever saw fireflies in my grandmother’s jungle, how the sound and the weather was like this. I’m telling myself not to faint, please don’t faint. I’m thinking he’s driving pretty slow, and thankfully he’s going around the bumps.
At the infirmary I foolishly get in line behind a few other students but then the nurse sees my hand and sends everyone else away. She brings an English-speaking student. Call your friends, he says.
I don’t have friends here, I don’t have a phone, I just arrived a few hours ago, I say.
He doesn’t understand. She wants you to call your friends, he says again.
Then I remember that I have two phone number saved on my ipod. I can call one of the English-speaking students who picked me up. They get her on the phone.
“Wait for me by the front gate in five minutes,” she says.
Okay, I say.
But the nurse won’t let me go anywhere. Finally, a truck pulls up and the nurse ushers me into the big seat in the back.
We get to the front gate but he doesn’t stop and I recognize that there are two gates and my student, the one who speaks English, is probably waiting at the second gate. It took lot of sign language and intense facial expression for me to get the driver of the truck to go to the second gate. I didn’t want him to take me to the hospital on my own. How could I explain? How could I get anything done? Finally, we’ve got E, my English speaking student whom I’m now thinking of as my new best friend.
When we finally pull up to the hospital, it looks like a museum from the second world war. We get inside, and it looks even more like a museum. Except the nurses that should be made of wax are moving and opening the ancient jars which look like relics that should be left alone.
We go upstairs and E leads me to a room where there is a desk, a hospital bed, and a little wooden stool and a metal tray table by the window. She leads me to the stool and the doctor tells me to sit down and extend my arm. He unwraps the shirt from my hand and everyone takes a look.
The gash is deep and long, about five inches from top to bottom but only two of those inches are deep, the other three are more like surface wounds, like a cat scratch. The doctor goes over to another counter and starts taking things out of cupboards and collecting basins and whatnot. Two nurses in little white caps with little white masks are standing by staring and not really doing anything. I keep thinking I should be taking photos of this but my ipod is in my purse which E is carrying and in addition, I don’t want the doctor to think that I’m insane or that I’m not taking my injury seriously. I am taking it seriously, I just want to document it. My hand is resting on the metal tray but my arm isn’t, it’s but to me to support it and keep it steady. Now that the t-shirt isn’t holding the cut together, the cut is more painful as the wound is open to the air.
Now, he begins to clean the wound with iodine. This is my first lesson in iodine in China, it is the magical serum which is used for everything here. I’m doing everything I can to keep my arm steady, to not move, but all I can think about are infections and China and that time I cut my finger in Korea and even after 45 minutes of holding it above my head, it still wanted to bleed.
The doctor says you have to be brave, I hear E telling me. He’s got a syringe now, I can tell he’s going to numb the wound before he stitches it up. A trash can has been placed under my hand, between my feet and the tray table and I can hear little drops of my own blood hitting the plastic bag.
I try and focus on the bed, on the shoes of the nurses who are standing by and doing nothing. I’m trying to decide if they’re being trained or if they’re simply bored. After he’s done numbing me, he begins to stitch me up and that’s when I notice there’s a little smear of blood on the dirty white wall just above the hospital bed.
I feel a hand on my shoulder. Can you talk to me, I hear E saying. I don’t think I can watch this any longer, she says.
And I can tell from her face that she looks like she’s going to be sick. So, we talk. We talk about the theatre program and Peter Pan, which is the play they’re going to work on this fall. We talk about J, the other student who came to the airport that morning to pick me up. We talk about anything and everything and I try not to tell the stitches actually happening on my hand, the sewing, I’m not thinking about it now.
The doctor tells me to come back in two weeks to get the stitches out. We go downstairs and they give me a tetanus shot. All together, the visit costs me about $6 USD.
After the hospital, E takes me to lunch in the little village area across the street from our school. J comes to meet us and we stay for hours chatting with some of their friends. It’s not that I want to chat for hours, but I don’t want to go home quite yet. I don’t want the reality of what just happened to sink in. For a minute I forget that I’m a teacher here and I begin to feel like a student except that everyone is taking my photo like I’m some grungy, sweaty celebrity.
The students take me to run errands. I need a cord to connect the phone jack to my computer. We stop in a little stationary shop and then the thunder starts and we’re in the middle of a downpour. A grandmother rides up on a bicycle with a baby strapped to her back. She brings the baby in and sets her down on the floor. The baby starts to scream. I think about it, leave it for a minute, and then finally I pick the baby up and hold her tightly to me. The grandmother doesn’t mind. She’s busy with something in the shop and
For twenty minutes we stay like that. The rain pounding outside, the little shop is one whole side opened to the elements, J and E are standing near where I’m sitting with this mystery baby who is now cooing and playing with my necklace. The grandmother is arranging things in the shop. We’re talking about I don’t know what. This is China. It’s like this here, they tell me, when it rains like this, we just wait for it to stop.
After the rain stopped, I spend a few hours walking around the campus with J and E. We go in circles and we know it and they don’t seem to care and neither do I. We find a huge tropical snail. We look at lily pads weighed down by rain water.
It wasn’t until a good ten days after my accident that I took a long enough look at my cut to realize just how close I had come to hitting an artery. I’m thankful today that I’m alright and have nothing left but a scar and a memory.
When i got home after the accident, I found drops of blood all over my floor. I left them there for almost a week, sort of a reminder to myself to be more careful.