Month One in China: An Update of Sorts

To get here, you first have to pass through mountains. Not the ear-splitting, car-groaning kind like back home, but still, these would be formidable to any avid Korean weekend hiker. These are lush, emerald, almost edible things dotted with dilapidated brick homes and serene fishing lakes. On one side of the mountains is Huadu, a city so small by China standards that you can’t find it on most maps (but it’s population is bigger than Seattle), on the other is Peizheng, the university where I now teach oral English.

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Part of the university and the mountains in the distance, photo taken from the fourth floor of one of the administration buildings.

I don’t know how to tell this story or how to catch everybody up. I’ve been in China for about five weeks now but only this week was I able to get my VPN to work so that I can access things like wordpress and facebook on my computer. I’m just going to tell this how it comes.

There are banana plants here everywhere. I first learned that they’re called “plants” and not “trees” when I went to the Philippines with my mother at 8 years old. The following summer I went to Vacation Bible School and immediately got into an argument with one of the teachers about banana plant terminology. I still think about that sometimes, more now that I live here, surrounded by bananas. Funny, the things that stick with you.

There’s a reservoir that wraps itself around the outside of my university’s property and tucked neatly inside the property are all our gnarled trees, various waterways, and pink and red brick buildings where 13,000 students get an education five days a week. My students taught me that the name of the reservoir in Chinese is Ji Yi Hu. The compound where us Western teachers live (six apartment buildings and a number of duplexes, there are about 60 of us here teaching mostly English) is on a small peninsula on the far edge of the campus that juts out into Ji Yi Hu. If you walk along the sidewalk on the rim of the peninsula on any evening or morning of the week, you’ll see the water dancing with fish of all different sizes. If it’s just before nightfall, the air around the water will be alive with bats darting back and forth between the mango trees and the space above the lilies where they can catch the most mosquitos. Once I was started by the biggest cane toad that I’ve seen since I was 8. A thing so big I would need a Hills Bros coffee can to catch it.

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My favorite view of Ji Yi Hu from one of our sidewalks.

Every morning I walk along Ji Yi Hu to my morning classes. It would be shorter to cut directly through campus instead of walking along the outer edge, but I can never resist the water and everything there is to see there in the morning. And now with my crutches, I like to stay out of the crowds. That’s right, my crutches, I’ve kinda neglected to make a public announcement about my most recent accident.

In my first three weeks in China, I landed myself stitches, x-rays, and crutches. The stitches story though scary at the time, is now a thing of the past, an anecdote for a scar, a reminder to be careful with pairing knives.

How did I get crutches? Well, it’s simple. The first week of October all of China went on a weeklong break for the National day holiday. I traveled to Guangzhou with a co-worker from my university to see the sights and what-not. Guangzhou is about two hours away from my university and it is the third-largest city in China. On our second day in Guangzhou, we did quite a lot. We went to Shamian Island (think the British, colonization, and opium), Haizhu square (think winding alleys, street vendors, a giant hog being butchered near a bread vendor), Beijing lu (shopping), and then finally to another market where I had read I could buy some film. By this time we were both a bit exhausted from all the walking around and we were talking about ending the night in a bookstore, but first, I wanted to find film so that I could start taking photos with something other than my ipod.

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An alley in Haizhu Square taken a few hours before my accident.

It’s so simple it’s embarrassing. All the stores in this market were raised about a foot above the central walkway, so you constantly had to step up and step down to go anywhere and nothing was marked. At one point I stepped up into a store, and then I forgot about the step down and so as I took that step, my body and mind expected it to be a normal step, not a down step, and just then my knee collapsed under me and the weight of my body went on my knee, I heard a bit of a pop and I went straight to the ground.

Right away I knew something was wrong. Mostly because it happened with my right knee and I had a serious injury with that knee when I was 14 (I broke the kneecap). That night my friend and I took a taxi back to the hostel where we were staying. It was still early so I insisted that she go out and make our dinner plans and I would rest and see if my knee was better in the morning. I didn’t realize then that the pain would take a few hours to set in, and so would the swelling. In the times she was gone, my knee swelled to three times it’s normal size and I found myself writhing in mind-numbing pain. I didn’t know what to do. It’s not like you can call 911 here, this is after all, China.

The next morning after help and calls and advice, we went to a hospital in Guangzhou. We didn’t get real pain medicine until about 18 hours after my initial fall after we had gone through one heck of an ordeal at hospital in Guangzhou but I’ll spare you the details. That afternoon, I could still barely walk and I took a taxi all the way back to my university. A few days later, after x-rays and ct scans and more trips to the doctor we found out that my knee was fractured and a bit dislocated (Note: since my accident happened over the National holiday week, everything took longer). I went back to a doctor in Huadu, the city closer to me and the doctor there drained a lot of fluid from my knee and since then my mobility has been increasing daily. I’ve been lucky in that the community of expats who I live with is wonderful and helpful. Every time I’ve been to the doctor, I’ve had one or more co-workers or students come with me. They’ve bought me coffee and ice cream while we’ve had to wait, held my paperwork, found the easiest routes through the maze of a hospital, translated for me, hailed taxis, and opened doors. I couldn’t ask to live in a better community of people than what I have at Peizheng.

It’s been a lot but everything since those first initial 18 hours of pain has been easy in comparison.

People keep making comments to me about how much has happened in my first month in China, and how I’m so good to have a good attitude about it. It’s funny, but this has probably been one of the most sobering experiences of my life. You see, growing up, my sister was always in the hospital. She was born with chronic kidney failure. While we were in the Philippines and I was learning about the difference between plants and trees, my sister got very sick with peritonitis and spent a lot of time in a hospital in Manila. My mother reported to me that it was the sort of place where you had to race the cockroaches to finish your dinner, had to watch the nurses to make sure they didn’t use the same needle twice, and my sister was there fighting for her life. She was 10 years old at the time. The first time I was in a Chinese hospital, when I was getting those stitches on my hand, I saw the blood dripping into an open trash can and turned my head to see a little smear of blood on the white wall and paint chips and dust on the hospital bed, and I thought of my older sister and I became calm. I know I’m lucky. I’ve always been painfully aware of how lucky I am to live the life that I live and it’s the knowing that’s creeped into my disposition and made me the person I can’t help but be.

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Myself, my younger sister, and all my grandmother’s orphans at her orphanage in the Philippines. My older sister is the tallest one on the right, she looks Filipino but really she was Native American.

Like I said when I started, I don’t really know how to tell this story or how to catch everyone up. But I do want to be more diligent with this blog and let you guys know what’s going on over here in my part of the world.

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This is me last week at church after 5 hours of small talk I totally lost all propriety and stuck my feet in the church fountain. This is what happens when dehydration sinks in, I think. Anyways you can see my knee brace and crutches.

I’m still seeing the doctor about my knee but everyday it’s getting a little bit better so I hope to be off the crutches soon. In the meantime, I’ve been watching lots of Gilmore Girls and trying to lesson plan and catch up on writing these blogs.

You can send care packages, coffee, Russian literature, spices (mulling spices especially), Neosporin, and chocolate here, just add the name “Tasha Swinney” to the top:

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