chapter 5, the traveler’s best friend
or… shanghai-ed in shanghai
october 15, 2007
los angeles, CA
i know, i know, these are supposed to be travelogues, stories from the great far off unknown. stories of adventure, insight, and discovery. stories of long houses, longer rivers, of great walls and forbidden cities, of multi-cultural, trans-global complexities. e-travels, dammit! and here i am e-mailing you from echo park, a home run away from dodger stadium, already back in LA for almost 2 months. but the fact is that i’ve been begrudgingly back to the daily grind and routine that all of us are plowing our communal and idiosyncratic ways through - since late august. almost making me forget that just a little over a month ago i was: atop the great wall of china at badaling, walking through the forbidden city in dongcheng, and that i was miraculously cured of lymphedema by a chinese acupuncturist husband and wife team in the ancient walled city of pingyao in shanxi province, when western medicine promised me only idiopathic elephant leg for the rest of my life.
you see, it turns out that a traveler’s best friend is not comfort, good fortune, adventure, insight, change of pace, perspective, good food, accident, or incident. it turns out that a traveler’s best and most essential friend is good health. this simple but elusive fact becomes abundantly self-evident when – one does not have it. consider: in ordinary life, we take our health for granted. instead, we complain about our financial challenges, our domestic rows, about being good friends, parents, siblings, husbands, and wives; we worry about, or actually lose, our shirts in an over ripe real estate investment. we lose our jobs, our afore-mentioned husbands or wives, another shirt in the stock market. we succumb to convention, expectation, societal or peer pressure. we pay for psychotherapy, gym memberships, expensive vacations. all to keep us in “good health”. then, at the whim of circumstance, bad habit, accident, or incident, we suddenly find ourselves not “in good health”. we’re suddenly “sick”, under the weather, we can’t do what we’ve previously taken for granted.
and it’s at this point, that suddenly we get one of life’s crucial wake up calls. “hey, man, wake up. this is life here, talking at you. you’re sick! out of balance. your body ain’t well. you need help, medicine, rest. change of lifestyle. you’re killin’ yourself here. killin’ me too. take it easy. take a look. examine. you need some changes. i’m fragile now. ‘me’, life, ya know. gimme a break.” so you wake up, maybe listen, if you know what’s good for you. “appreciate what you have, man. you’re not gonna have it forever. in fact, at this pace, you’re not gonna have it for much longer at all. you know what they say about AIDS patients? or cancer patients with worse diagnoses than your hodgkin’s disease? or anyone facing their own mortality? you have appreciate each day, one at a time. it could be your last.”
and when you get this wake up call, or something pretty near like it, on the road – like my dad did in corsica when he suffered the 2nd of his two heart attacks and was diagnosed with two near-fatal aneurysms. or like i did when i was waylaid in phnom penh with a bad respiratory attack and no doctor. or like when i was exhausted in sarawak and penang in malaysia with another debilitating auto-immune set back. well then, the call is loud and clear. you suddenly stop caring about which sites to see, which restaurants to eat at, which train to take at what time… it suddenly all takes a back seat to your number one friend, good health, who is sitting straight up, and demanding your full time attention.
so now, travel, good health, and a bag full of meds and preventatives have escorted me to shanghai. that’s right, i have almost a whole knapsack, one of my two travel bags, devoted to meds: malarone, my anti-malarial, cipro, my emergency antibiotic, tarruflu for the viral thing, allegra and benedryl, anti-allergenics for either day or night-time, immodium and ducolax, for shoring up - or opening - my intestinal flow, rolaids and pepto for mild digestive bouts, vitamins A-Z to cover the full natural health spectrum, hi-deet mosquito repellant for both skin and clothes, echinacea and goldenseal to bolster my immune system, dristan and theraflu if they fail, oscillococcinum, my swedish homeopathic cold remedy, gao mao lin, my ancient chinese herbal cold supplement. ibuprofen for aches and pains, zocor for cholesterol, maybe even some viagra (one never knows)… the list goes on. and on. as i said, i’ve learned the hard way: good health is the traveler’s most essential and best friend, bad health, the enemy in the black hat. “neurotic hypochondriac”, you say? “better safe than sorry,” me and my new yawk pal, woody allen, say… a sheepish and defensive grimace on our faces.
it’s taken “us” only 32 minutes from suzhou to shanghai by “bullet” train, the fastest one in china besides the maglev airport shuttle in shanghai. 212 kilometers an hour. something like 150 mph. faaaaaaast! i’ve made a reservation at another youth hostel, my first since my day one green couch-red light disaster in beijing. but the friendly staff at the suzhou hostel have recommended it. i have to admit, i’m a little intimidated by big bad shanghai, the modern megalopolis of china. shanghai: “whore of the orient, paris of the east. city for quick riches, ill-gotten gains, and fortunes lost on the tumble of the dice. shanghai: city of adventurers, swindlers, gamblers, drug-runners, tycoons, missionaries, gangsters, and backstreet pimps.” it’s my last stop. i want to play it safe. and always superstitious (are there any travelers who aren’t?), i want to get back to LA in one piece and in good health. i have only three days left.
chinese “youth” hostels. they’re amazing. clean. organized. friendly. efficient. if you pick a good one, that is. not at all like what “youth hostels” used to be back in the day. you know the day: the late 60s/early 70s euro-backpacker-hippy day – when you had to squeeze your dirty, bedraggled ass into a four, six, or eight bunk room next to three, five or seven other unwashed 20 year old counter-cultural phenoms, all with large egos and no money in their pockets. no, today’s “youth hostels” are different. at least all over asia they are. sure, you can still pack yourself into another 4, 6, 8, or 10 bunk room for 40 yuan in china (5 bucks), but it’ll be clean. and you can make the reservation online (hoping the pics have been taken within the last 3 years!). and most of the other “youths” will be clean cut, if they’re americans. or arty and counter cultural if they’re european. a lot of the hostels in china even have unisex dorms, men and women in the same room. me? i usually avoid the american backpackers when i travel, along with the mcdonalds, the kentucky frieds, and anything else that reminds me of home. which is to say, i’m not the homesick type. the last thing i want is to do is to eat, talk about, or gravitate to things that remind of “home”, the very place i’ve left behind. not to mention that these days it’s somewhat problematic to say you’re “american”, what with the damage that george dubya’s done to our reputation around the planet. most hip american, post 9/11travelers tell natives they’re “from canada”. as they say all over asia, “good for health”.
the thing is, these chinese youth hostels are not only for “youth”. they have travelers of all ages staying there, from all over the world. and in addition to the multi-bunk rooms, they also have single and double bed rooms, say for 200 yuan (25 bucks), that are more like well-appointed budget hotel rooms, with tvs, private bathrooms and showers, along with communal internet access (for an extra 10 yuan an hour), tourist booking services, and even 24 hour mini 7-11s in the lobby, with everything for sale that the tourist-traveler can imagine. including that 5 yuan tsing tao beer.
there aren’t, however, many near-60 year old travelers checking into these chinese youth hostels. and although i still feel like a 25 year old rebel youth in my heart…. ok, maybe 35…. it’s pretty obvious to the owners and staffs of these hostels, that i’m a pretty fucking old man! which – surprisingly – is not a bad thing. in fact, quite the opposite. age is respected in china. or at least mine seems to be. they always give me the biggest and best room they have. in suzhou, i ate with the staff. for free. they told me i was the only one they ever did it with. it wasn’t the same when i was traveling with my (young) wife. who knows what the hostel people thought? but we were treated – unremarkably. we got ok rooms. sometimes the staff was friendly. sometimes they weren’t. we tended to fend for ourselves. but you already know that: you always meet more people, have a more interesting time, get into more trouble – when you’re traveling alone. and after two weeks in beijing and xi’an with the little indonesian missus, i’ve put da lovely my wife back on the plane to LA, almost two weeks ago. she’s back at work – as a bartender in LA’s china town – while i - after my heart-thumping LDTX dance teaching gig in beijing - i’ve been on the road solo. from beijing to nanjing to suzhou to now shanghai. it’s been fun. not too lonely. free-spirited and independent. sex and culture museums. a little more art and culture all around. kunqu opera. pingtan music hall. accident and incident. shopping still – but for myself and friends. although i did promise da wife “something special” from shanghai.
which is where i am right now. i got here at 9 in the morning, and by 10, i was “out in it”, as i like to say. you see, one of those fortuitous accident-incidents occurred at the i.m. pei-built suzhou museum. just yesterday. i was standing in front of an ancient, giant blue-painted ming dynasty vase, when somehow, out of the ming blue, i ended up chatting with a very lovely chinese accountant of the female persuasion, who had a passion for art. somehow, in very careful english, i explained to her that i was on my way to shanghai first thing the next morning. and wouldn’t you just know it, traveler’s other wayward friend, dumb luck, had her offer to be my tour guide - for a day – in shanghai. she would bus in early in the morning from her little village outside suzhou and show me around. her personal bird’s eye view of shanghai. which is exactly what she, ching yee’s, done. first shown me shanghai’s “old town”, with its swamps of tourists, century-old wooden pagoda temples, and tasty finger foods. then for a contrast, she’s taken me on a half hour walk through construction-bursting shanghai to “xintiandi”, with its trendy and renovated traditional low-rise shikumen houses, originally built in the early1900s. next, we stroll to “the french concession”, shanghai’s leafy and well-groomed version of london’s kensington or chelsea: art deco apartment blocks, architecturally-preserved hotels and stone residential buildings, more cafes, bars, restaurants. and of course-ment, tons of well-heeled international shanghai shoppers. shopping, of course-ment, for over-priced, modern and ancient shanghai trinkets. i’m afraid da wife’s gift will have to wait…
it’s six o’clock. still day one in shanghai. ching yee’s already taken the bus back to suzhou, put me safely into a shanghai taxi, and i’m back at the blue mountain youth hostel. it’s a little out of the way, between the french concession and the bund, but the price is right, and it was easy to find from the main shanghai train station. i’ve showered and been invited to the common room by the four blue mountain owners - and their lawyer. wait a minute. have i done something illegal? do they know something i don’t? no, they just want to learn about me. have a drink. ok. it seems both odd… and perfectly natural. i agree. after all, it’s the first hostel on my trip where i’ve seen my old friends, johnny walker, stolich naya, and my main man, senor jose cuervo from me-hee-co. i first meet gong pi, the lawyer. not gong li, the actress. gong pi, the lawyer. he pours me a very healthy jose tequila on the rocks and brings the bottle over to the low glass table, along with a bucket of ice. the first senor cuervo slides down nice and smoothly. it’s been a long dry spell… and i’m soon refilling. then re-filling. “good for health?” the whole blue mountain quintet is grilling me, about myself, and when a convenient laptop suddenly appears at the table, we’re soon all unisonly gaping at cyber images - of me – online.
the drinks are flowing – mostly down my throat – and i seem to be holding court. “yeah, that’s the travel website. yeah, i ran for mayor of new york as a clown. yeah, blah blah blah. yeah, me me me.” now you may not believe me, but it’s not something i like doing. holding court. one on one, fine, but just me around a table of students, admirers, or sycophants – chinese or otherwise – i just don’t feel comfortable. it reminds me of what i think orson welles or oscar wilde would like to be doing. but… right now, the alcohol is talking, and they all seem to be interested -- in this 60 year old visitor from america – with the big mouth, big ego, and big cyber-presence. it’s “trules this” and “trules that”; i’m talking about myself in the third person, and it seems they’re looking at me for… knowledge…. wisdom… experience.
i’m almost too drunk to notice, and soon a documentary filmmaker-slash academic appears with his smart-looking student assistant, peng. he calls himself “river bottom”, and we’ve e-mailed each other several times over the course of my four week china trip. we’ve even spoken over the phone a couple of times, although i couldn’t tell if mr. bottom was a hip chinese dude or an ex-hippie american. i was curious to find out. he’s been gracious enough to come over to the blue mountain by cab, and he and peng join our glass table reverie, dead sober. it seems i’m now polishing off the last of the jose cuervo, and that i’ve now drunk about 90% of it by myself. i’m loud and animated, although i don’t know how wise or knowledgeable. in fact, i wonder if the blue mountain crew might want to take their biggest and best room back from me. “nice to meet you, trules,” mr. chinese prof river bottom says, rising from the table with assistant peng at his side. she’s seemed to have been quite attentive to everything i’ve been saying. interested? polite? or just the booze talking? “nice meeting you too, bottom. thanks for coming over.” “no problem, trules, what time should peng come over to pick you up tomorrow?” huh? have i missed something else? “peng’s coming over tomorrow?” “certainly. how else will you get around shanghai?”
and she does. the next morning at 9, “no make that 11. i’m a bit hung over.” and at 11 a.m. sharp, peng is waiting for me in the lobby. she has her map and her guide book, and it’s the second time in two days that i have a personal guide to show me around shanghai. it seems i’ve done something right. or, as i said before, maybe i’ve just lived long enough, to warrant such generosity, or respect. i’m the “wise old” college prof, making my way around modern china, on my own. the same way i’ve made my way around the rest of the world for the past forty years. but that was then. and this is now. china 2007. and it must seem to the chinese that the old man “needs” a guide. anyway, who am i to look a gift horse in the mouth? no matter how shitface i was last night, or how desperately hung-over i am this morning.
we taxi and subway to pudong, the most recently renovated section of town, whose flowered-domed and towering skyscrapers make even new york’s manhattan island skyline seem like an architecturally-dated corporate cow town of the past. buildings in shanghai, especially in pudong, are literally bursting to life – kind of like healthy new corn in a hot summer nebraska corn field. even in the rain. like today. that’s right, as fate would have it, it’s a brutally hot and humid, a typical, mid-august chinese east coast kinda day. 32 degrees celsius (98 degrees fahrenheit) – and drizzling. whenever i put on my nylon rain jacket, i sweat like a pig; whenever we ride up one of the sky-kissing towers, the frigid air conditioning has me shaking like leaf. not exactly a prescription for good health. in fact, quite the opposite. so by late morning, having alternately sweated and shook my way through pudong’s most expensive real estate, and as we make our way up the needle-nosed, black jin mao tower, third highest building in the world, i am sure of just one thing: i am getting one doozy of a cold. i want to run/taxi back to my hostel, pour my knapsack out onto the bed and find my oscillococcinum, my echinacea and goldenseal, my 1000 mg vitamin C, my ibuprofen…. i want to gargle with my listerine…. i want to get under the covers and sweat, hide, rest, and resist… this oncoming onslaught.
but i don’t. how can i? peng has taken the day off, at her teacher’s request, to show me around shanghai. she has the whole day planned. next is “the bund”, shanghai’s euro-asian, most popular people-watching riverfront. we take the underground disney-esque tourist subway and tunnel under the huangpu river from pudong to the heart of the bund. i’m sweating and exhausted, but i keep my mouth shut (for a change). i suggest we take the river cruise so i can sit passively and absorb the sights from on deck, but we can’t find a boat to fit our schedule; besides peng says the “bund is for walking”. so we do. and it is. pudong’s shining skyscrapers look even more modern from across the river on the bund side, and the people, they’re even more interesting than the architecture. we walk and wile away the afternoon, me sweating and worrying about my imminent demise, peng pleasantly accommodating my near 60 years by sitting at a riverside oyster bar until near dusk. at which point, it’s time to catch a quick noodle dinner and exit into the bright neon lights of east nanjing road. just like the movies: charlie chan, “shanghai triad”. we make our way towards remnin (peoples’) square, see the glittering shanghai museum, the spectacular upside shanghai grand theatre, and the bulb-burning shanghai urban planning hall. my eyeballs are popping, and i get a sharp little twinge in my capitalist craw, a sure sign that chairman mao is twisting and turning in his grave.
it’s near 10 p.m. i’ve been “out in it” for 11 hours, and i’m beat. this isn’t the way i like traveling. long tourist endurance stretches are not my thing. i like short bursts. with long comfortable rests in between. in LA, i drive. in new york, ok, i walk, but not for 11 hours straight. in hundred degree rain. i’ve already gone through my sweating, cold-catching stage, now i definitely have it. i’m sick. i get in the cab, thank my perfect tour guide, peng, and tell her to take it easy on me for day two of our tour. “i’ll speak to you tomorrow. not too early, please.”
i call peng in the morning. “tour off,” i say. “i can’t take any more.” “sorry?” she says, as if she’s done something wrong. “it’s not you, peng; it’s me. i’m beat.” “beat?” she mimics, like i’m some bongo-beating beatnik from the long ago american past. “tired, peng. i got sick yesterday. i need to rest.” “but i got you a ticket to the shanghai museum,” she pleads. “i can’t, peng. i’m sick. i need a clinic more than i need another museum.” “ok, you want me to find you a clinic?” “with a chinese doctor who can give me acupuncture?” i ask, remembering what the miraculous husband-wife team did for my lymphedema in pingyao. “no problem”, she says, and in half an hour she’s back in the blue mountain lobby waiting for me.
she’s found a chinese medical clinic just half a block a way. i take it as a “sign”, and we walk over. it’s a big hospital-looking place, and of course i have to check in first. passport. sign-in sheet. symptoms. interview with a nurse. and twenty minutes later, i have a medical ID card. i’m in the system. me – an american citizen – in the nationwide chinese medical clinic system – for 6 yuan and 40 cents. i’m shocked. because i know exactly what would have happened to my chinese counterpart in america. they’d have gone to a hospital, to a private doctor, and unless they had cash, and a lot of it – they’d have been turned away – for lack of insurance. but here in shanghai, i’m already signed up, and i can see any doctor in the hospital – a privilege i paid less than a dollar for. any american health care reformers listening out there?
we walk upstairs to the acupuncture and massage clinic. there are four technicians and one patient. peng is my translator, and she gives them my symptoms: slightly swollen right ankle and calf (lymphedema again?), imminent flu, and why not, i throw in the osteo arthritis in my right hip. “can you help me?” i smile. i think they understand the word “help” because they all smile back. they have a mini-chinese conference, right there in front of me, and they all agree, i should go out for some breakfast (acupuncture better on full stomach), and come back in twenty minutes, when the one male doctor, who’s working on a patient, will be done. so we do. peng and i find a another chinese noodle shop right at the corner, and twenty minutes later, we climb the staircase back to the second floor.
the smiling male doctor is ready for me, but he tells peng that he’s spoken to his immediate boss, the director of the acupuncture clinic, and she wants to treat me herself. ok…. why not? needles from the boss, massage from the dude. i lie down in the treatment room, which is back through the lobby where we first came in. i’m the only patient in the clinic. the team all circle around, as i roll up my pant leg and take off my shirt. there’s a little giggling and twittering. i smile. peng smiles. they all smile. once again, needles go into the head, legs, arms, stomach, and this time, into the face too. i have to remember, it’s a triple treatment: cold, arthritis, and lymphedema leg. they all leave, and i close my eyes for the next half hour to let the needles work their magic.
an hour later, and we’re back on the street. i’ve paid an additional 44 yuan for both the acupuncture and the massage, which has been more of the stone hand than of the gentle variety. they’ve treated me during their lunch hour, that’s why there were no other patients, and lucky me, i’m a proud survivor of the chinese medical system. five dollars and forty cents more, thank you very much. i thank peng for her special medical dispensation, and her excellent translation… and i put her in a taxi, back to her parents’ home nearby. i climb the steps up to the blue mountain, and i bury myself under the sheets for the next 36 hours, hoping that the acupuncture and massage will bring me the same miraculous results as in pingyao.
but by the time i take the “maglev” to the shanghai airport the next day at 430 kilometers/hour (the train goes so fast that the cars on the highway look like they’re going backward!), my head is completely clogged. i’m sick as a dog, sweating and shivering. shit! i haven’t escaped the wrath of khan, after all. i made it in good health for over 30 days, over thousands of miles, through ancient chinese provinces, but now, on my very last day in shanghai, i’m totally defeated. i’ve thrown my entire arsenal at it: my oscillococcinum, my vitamin C, my gargle, my herbs, even sleep itself, but khan has won. i’ve been shanghai-ed in shanghai.
you’d think that was the end of my story, eh? back in LA. back to work. back to “normal”? but no. i haven’t felt right since my return in mid august. i’m still sweating. i’m tired all the time. USC’s dr. j says, “no problem. take it easy. you’re tired.” “well, no shit, sherlock! i know i am. but why?” ah……….. western medicine is not to reason or to know why, western medicine is to see symptoms, cut, and treat. no symptoms, or no symptoms that match a particular profile, then no treatment. “just rest,” the good doctor says….
which i do…. until one sunday morning in early september, under a bright blue california sky, i take my tired sweating ass to the local chinese dim sum (dumpling) emporium, three minutes from my home… and what do i see? “dr. william woo yiu fai, chinese herbalist doctor” in residence at “fuk yin tong herbs trading centre”, kitty corner to the empress pavilion, china town’s biggest dim sum joint on broadway and bernard streets.
doctor woo sits me down at his office/desk. he looks in my ears. he shines a pencil flashlight into my irises. he feels my pulses with his three center fingers on my inner wrists. first right, then left. then he asks, “you tihed?” “yes,” i say. he asks, “you sweat?” “yes,” i say. then he asks, “you have tumohs?” “what? no!” i say. “but i had cancer many years ago.” “when”? dr. william woo asks studiously. “almost 18 years ago,” i say, more than a little alarmed. “don’t worry. surgery not necessary”, he reassures me. “you take herbs.”
and so i do. doctor woo makes it easy on my non-chinese gringo ass. i buy seven bottles of fuk yin tong herbs. five bottles of little brown pellets. one bottle of bright yellow tablets. one bottle of little green pills. i take 48 pellet/tablet/pills 3 times a day. i take some two hours before breakfast, some 15 minutes after each meal, and some right before i go to bed. i take the pills religiously. i shit like a loose herbal faucet. i lose five pounds in a week. i return to dr. woo the following sunday. he shines his light in my eyes, he takes my pulses. “you feel bettuh?” he asks. “a little,” i say. “good,” says dr. woo. “you continue. massage help. foot massage vehy good.” so i get the foot massage – from “simon”, a smiling native from the chinese beer city of tsing tao. simon no speak englis, but he has beautiful hands, and he keeps asking, “su--foo? comfortable?” as he prods and pushes every possible pressure point , laughing constantly like the cat who’s just swallowed the canary.
i continue. seven more bottle of herbs. every day for the next week. i lose five more pounds. but when i return the next sunday, i don’t look or feel much better. i decide to go for the real deal: the actual chinese dried raw herbs mixed and boiled together to make a brown bitter tea. i buy seven bags full of twigs, barks, fungi, dried herbs, and who know what else…. one bag for each day. i buy a special electric, flowered-yellow tea pot that will boil down two quarts of water, with the dried herbs in them, into one thick brown gooey cup of tea. dr. woo throws in a bag of sweet dried plums to take with the tea – so i won’t vomit it all up.
i boil and drink. every day. along the way, my uncle herbie dies. he’s one of only three uncles i have. old age. my best friend’s mother-in-law dies. she’s tired of living. i constantly think about death. my own. i remember my cancer. hodgkin’s disease. night sweats. i ask dr. j for a CT scan. he’s thinks i’m crazy. “there’s no indication.” “what about the sweating and the weight loss?” “take some lexapro,” the good doctor says, indicating with the prescription of the modern day prozac, that he thinks it’s all in my mind. “fuck you,” i want to say but don’t.
it’s two months now since i’ve returned from china. i’m feeling somewhat better. not nearly as much sweating. not nearly as tired. i even skipped my sunday dim sum and dr. woo combo last sunday in china town. i’ve been looking for and waiting… for my best friend to find me again. i lost him somewhere in shanghai. but i think i can hear him. i think i can almost see him again. he’s just around the corner……..
love from echo parque
a votre sante,
erique xu, with mysterious chinese smile