A little accident. A short story

The Chinese art of “pulling noodles”

Liu Yan’s new Mazda 6 hadn’t acquired a single dent in the year since she had bought it. Not bad for a novice negotiator of Beijing’s congested streets. She had taught herself how to parallel park without an attendant’s help, while her friends would drive out of their way to find easier parking. She was also careful each time she got out of the car, first peeking out to make sure no one might sideswipe her door, before opening it slowly to alert any approaching riders.

Yet sometimes the greatest vigilance falls short, like this morning as she was getting out of the car in front of her workplace. Opening the door a crack as usual and seeing nothing coming, she grabbed her purse off the passenger seat and stepped out. In this brief elapse a man on a bicycle had somehow materialized and caught the edge of her door on his handlebar. He wasn’t going that fast—all the more odd, as how could she not have spotted him?—but it was enough to send his bike into a wobble that brought it almost to a standstill before he lost his balance and fell on his knee.

What transpired next went according to script. The man, who looked to be about sixty, curled up in fetal position and rolled over, his face stretched in excruciating pain.

“I’m so sorry, sir. Are you okay?”

No response.

Liu Yan stood over him and sighed. A crowd was already forming. Another minute passed. “Sir, you don’t have to exaggerate your pain with me. Now, sit up. We can negotiate this.”

The man took out his cellphone, dialed a number and murmured into it. At a loss as to what to do herself, she realized she should call the police. The crowd swelled out into the street, forcing traffic around it. “Sir, are you well enough to get up and come over onto the pavement?”

He continued to show the greatest pain and ignored her. Minutes later, three men came up. “Ren Dong, where are you hurt?” they asked.

“On the knee,” he grimaced.

They started braying at her. “You have to call an ambulance to take our friend to the hospital!” yelled one.

“You have to compensate him for his medical expenses. That’s surely going to cost 10,000 yuan!” yelled another.

“10,000—are you kidding?” said the third, casting the second an angry look. “His kneecap may be broken. That’s at least 20,000. I knew someone once with a broken kneecap. And at Ren Dong’s age, it may never heal. You can’t properly compensate that.”

“No,” said Liu Yan, “We have to let the police settle this. And the hospital will decide the expenses. And why do you assume I have that kind of money? I’m just an office lady who only earns 5,000 a month.”

“You have a Mazda 6 and you only earn 5,000?” the third one said. “That’s impossible. You’d have to be earning two or three times that to afford such a car. That’s a 200,000-yuan car.”

“It was 160,000,” she snapped back.

A policeman’s arrival came as a relief. He took down a few details and confirmed to Liu Yan she had the responsibility of getting the man safely to the hospital. The man wanted an ambulance. By this point he was already sitting up and looking more relaxed. The cop didn’t buy his claim that he couldn’t move. He got him up on his feet and helped inside Liu Yan’s car, and put his bike in the trunk. He thanked his friends, and she drove him to the hospital.

“Fortunately, there’s no bone fracture,” the doctor announced to them when the X-ray came back. “But there is inflammation of the tissue beneath the kneecap, and this will require a regimen of treatment.”

“Will he have to come back for a follow-up?” Liu Yan asked.

“Oh, yes, every week until it heals.”

“How many weeks do you think it will take?”

“If there are no unexpected complications, at least a month, maybe two.”

“What exactly is the injury?”

“Acute synovitis.”

The doctor instructed Ren Dong on how to prepare the poultice he would be wearing on his knee every day, filled out a prescription for the medicine along with a potion of Chinese herbs he would be imbibing as well, and sent them to the cashier’s to pay for it before picking it up at the hospital pharmacy. The cost including the doctor’s fee came to almost 2,000 yuan. As she drove the man home, she did a mental calculation of what she might end up having to pay for the bruised knee. “I hope you get better quickly,” she told him, not wholly out of concern for his health.

Back at her job, she looked more closely at the long list of medicines on the prescription receipt and bit her lip. Wild ginger, scallion, borneol, achyranthes, red peony, white peony, safflower, frankincense, wolfsbane, eucommia, morning star lily, earthworm, peach kernel, clubmoss, wallichii, licorice root, angelica….Her mother had often force-fed her vile brews of traditional herbs for colds and fevers while growing up, but this was ridiculous. Anyway she otherwise knew nothing about Chinese medicine.

“Are all these herbs really necessary? Or is the doctor padding expenses? Do you suppose that’s why he used Chinese instead of Western medicine?” she asked her colleagues.

“Probably. But it doesn’t matter. Your accident insurance should cover it.”

“I don’t think they will cover all these medicines. Especially since I’m the one who seems at fault for the accident.”

She spent the rest of the day trying to contact the appropriate people at her auto insurance company. She submitted the necessary forms along with copies of the medical receipts, and was informed their processing could take up to six weeks.

A week later she was in an important meeting at work when her cellphone rang.

“You need to come to the hospital right away!” said Ren Dong. “I can’t get my second course of medicine until you pay for it.”

“But I’m in a meeting.”

“No. You must come immediately. I can’t stand here all day!”

She excused herself and headed to the hospital. It was a bit easier this time, actually. All she had to do was pay the fees—another 2,000 yuan—and drive him home. She helped him up the five flights of stairs to his apartment, as she had done the last time, but was now invited inside for a cup of tea. Ren Dong and his wife seemed the nicest of people.

“How’s the knee?” Liu Yan asked.

“Thanks to you, it’s getting much better,” the wife said. Ren Dong concurred with an effusive laugh.

At a loss for something to talk about, Liu Yan took out the latest prescription receipt and scanned it. Honeysuckle, Chinese thistle, notoginseng, edible fungus, Job’s tears, atractylodes, cork tree bark, red sage, millettia, dahurican root, water plantain, milk vetch, tangerine pith, yellow leader, teasel root. “These medicines are all different from last week’s.”

“It was a different doctor. He said this was what I needed.”

“You mean last week’s medicine was all wrong?”

“I really don’t know. He didn’t say it was. It seemed to help. You know Chinese medicine is slow acting and takes time and patience. It could be that the prescription needs to change as the healing goes through its course.”

His phone call a week later came inopportunely on the dot. “I’m at the hospital cashier with a new prescription and you’re keeping me waiting. I thought you’d be here to meet me but you’re still at work? All the seats in the lobby are taken and I have no place to sit down. How can you treat me like this! What kind of irresponsible woman are you!”

“All right, calm down, Ren Dong. I’ll be there in thirty minutes.”

“Hurry, up!”

Back at Ren Dong’s place a while later for her second visit, the elderly couple was as gracious as ever. Though they didn’t talk much, they offered her some ginseng tea. Once again Liu Yan furrowed her brow at the new prescription receipt, with yet another list of completely different medicines. Hogweed, cassia twig, red beans, Chinese foxglove, coromandel, rhubarb, cotton rosemallow, dragon’s blood, garlic, akebia, musk, myrrh, clematis, mugwort, eleuthero, centipede.

Another new doctor?”

“Yes. He said I was making progress, but he thought this prescription could better speed up the healing.”

Thus each week passed with Ren Dong standing helpless at the hospital cashier with prescription slip in hand and yelling at Liu Yan on his cellphone for neglecting him. She would rush over to the hospital to pay for a novel medicinal congeries written up by yet another doctor and drive him home to be invited up for tea. Her perplexity at the proliferating pharmacopeia which seemed to be the less effective the larger it grew led her to seek the advice of an old friend who happened to be a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine.

To her surprise and dismay, the friend refused to confirm or deny that any of the medicines that had been prescribed over the previous weeks were the right ones. A few more inquiries through other contacts brought her face to face with someone even more impressive, a traditional Chinese medicine doctor in residence at Peking University who also had a degree in Western medicine from Harvard Medical School.

“I’m really miffed at my so-called friend, who wouldn’t enlighten me on this man’s prescriptions,” Liu Yan said to the doctor. “I made it very clear to her I wasn’t intending to use her advice for any legal redress. I was just curious.”

“She didn’t believe you.”

Liu Yan showed the doctor copies of the prescriptions. “Are all these medicines correctly prescribed? How could each doctor come up with a different concoction? Don’t they agree on anything? Are the doctors and this man in on something? Is Chinese medicine even necessary when Western medicine might be simpler and cheaper? Or am I being hoodwinked?”

“Yes and yes. There is no question that Chinese medicine is superior to Western medicine in the treatment of synovitis. At the same time, you are being overcharged for medicines he doesn’t really need. They can’t hurt and might make a difference, but if this is, as you say, his first such injury and he doesn’t have a history—I mean he was riding a bike and gets regular exercise and seems generally in good health—it will definitely heal. For traumatic injuries, we normally prescribe drugs to decrease hemorrhaging, inflammation and swelling, while increasing blood circulation. Basically it comes down to removing bad qi and restoring good qi. There are many herbs that can do all of these things. For someone with chronic synovitis, we have to be more creative. For his problem, acute synovitis, which is much easier to treat, Yunnan White Powder plasters should do the trick. They have some of the same ingredients I see on these prescriptions—notoginseng, borneol, aconite—pretty potent stuff. You can buy of a box of them at any pharmacy for twenty yuan.”

“You mean that’s all he needed?”

“Probably.”

Liu Yan thanked him for his time and got up to leave.

“Oh, by the way,” the doctor added, “would you have any need for a herbal tonic like Manchurian ginseng or deer antler velvet? I can get you a deal on high-quality stuff. That will help the man’s immune system kick in. They’re aphrodisiacs as well, good for the man in your own life,” he winked. “How about some horny goat weed?” he added as she stepped out of his office.

Two months had gone by since the accident and Liu Yan decided she had had enough. Ren Dong could no longer deny his improvement, particularly as he was now making it up five flights of stairs unaided. The previous week’s prescription turned up a shorter list of medicines. “How are you doing now?” she had asked him.

“More or less okay. I may just need one more follow-up visit to the doctor.”

Today she brought the couple a basket of fruit and they fixed her an elaborate lunch. She took out two copies of a waiver she had prepared absolving her of any further obligations in the matter. What she didn’t tell them was that the insurance company had agreed to reimburse her for 100% of the expenses.

“Congratulations on your successful recovery,” she said after Ren Dong had signed both copies.

“We greatly appreciate all the help you’ve given us.” He continued, “Liu Yan, you can see how poor we are. You know how paltry our government pension is. You’re such a good, kind woman. We wondered if you could help us a little more.”

Bu xing. No, I can’t help you anymore. We just signed the waiver.”

“This has nothing to do with my injury. Please follow me.”

Ren Dong led her to a room in their apartment and opened the door. It was stacked floor to ceiling with hundreds of shiny boxed packages trimmed in red and gold. The Middle-Aged & the Old Nutritional Oatmeal with Amino Acids. Chueun Composite Peptides with Date & Iron. Brain-Nourishing Walnut Powder. Bone-Strengthening Aged Yak Marrow. Scholar Tree Blossom Honey. Soybean Mild Powder with Vitamins. Blood-Replenishing E-Gelatin, Queen Bee Jelly Capsules, Red Date Longan Lotus Seed Porridge. American Ginseng Oral Solution. High Calcium Whey Protein Powder. Essence of Black Chicken with Angelica. Cordyceps Militaris Bird’s Nest Drink.

She recognized the goods at once. “These are Yin-Yang health products,” she said, befuddled.

Ren Dong and his wife dropped to their knees and kowtowed to her, wailing. “Please help us, Liu Yan!”

“But what do you want me to do?”

“We got them at wholesale price. We’ll give them to you for just 10% more. You can then sell them to others for less than they cost at the supermarket and still make a big profit.”

“I can’t take all of these. That’s crazy. I couldn’t even find the people to give them away to! Don’t you have any children or relatives to help you with this?”

They continued kowtowing and crying. “Our child has passed away. Our relatives neglect us. You’re like a dear daughter to us.”

So began Liu Yan’s new filial relationship. She paid them 2,000 yuan for ten boxes and they made her promise she’d be back the following week for more. Nobody at her job was interested in the Yin-Yang goods. They were not strictly for health use but rather guanxi or relationship cultivation, the token currency in the closed economy of the retired and elderly, who in lieu of wiling away their days in other constructive activities, passed the goods around among acquaintances to put them into “gratitude” debt. She managed to give away some to her co-workers so that they could give them away to yet others. She expected nothing in return. She didn’t even attempt to sell any of them. Yet over the months as she transferred the old couple’s burden from their apartment to hers, she felt a strange sense of achievement in this tying up of loose ends.

 *     *     *

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The Exact Unknown and Other Tales of Modern China

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