The high priests of medicine: U.S. and Chinese hospitals

Chicago, 1999

One day the previous December I was out jogging and my calf muscles cramped up so badly I had to limp home. The next day they were swollen and I continued to limp. The day after that my lower back became inflamed, making it even more difficult to walk. My back would bother me one day, my calves the next, some days both, and everyday I walked laboriously with a limp. I blamed it on a back sprain probably caused by lifting my wife out of bed. She loved to sleep and it was one of the more effective ways to get her up. My nurse practitioner thought it was a muscle spasm, pinching my motor nerves. A muscle relaxant was prescribed and I was told to follow up when it got better. It did get better in the sense that the pain went away, but the limping remained. Finally some six weeks later, she sent me for a spine x-ray and an appointment with a neurologist on the assumption it might be a nerve problem. I was suspecting the same thing.


Black forest cake blues: The customer service problem

I have loads of Chinese restaurant stories. They are definitely worth a book, as the Chinese restaurant is the surest window into Chinese culture you will ever find, with different social classes thrown together in a confined space and forced to deal with one another and get along. My latest only-in-China saga took place at the Library, a spacious establishment in the fashionable Jianwai Soho neighborhood in Beijing’s CBD. A trendy place, all three floors stocked with bookshelves and traditional hardwood tables and chairs and upholstered sofas as well for those who don’t like hard furniture. I have to say for a Chinese-run café the coffee is pretty good, along with the generous servings; even the medium-size mug is too large and heavy for comfort.

From struggle sessions to public dressing-downs: China’s continuity of psychological control

Typical admonitory dressing-down speech or “xunhua” in front of a restaurant in Beijing, 2011

There is an unforgettable scene in the harrowing autobiography of a man living through the worst of modern Chinese history. In an Anti-Rightist Campaign struggle session in 1957, the crowd grows hysterical in its denunciations of Peter Liu and forbids him from smoking. Fearing they are about to become violent and might beat him to death, Liu asks the commander if he may go relieve himself in the WC outside the hall. Permitted to do so, he exits the building, gets on his bicycle, and rides home. The stunned interrogators are none too pleased by his brazen exit, but that’s not why he is soon sent off to over ten years of hard labor in the Chinese gulag, followed by another ten years of confined “employment.” In fact, his fate was already sealed long before when a PLA soldier discovered a firearm in the back of his family’s property that had been discarded in a junk pile by the retreating Japanese army.

The old Chinese bathhouse, circa 2000

浴, the Chinese character for bathing, formerly displayed on signs indicating a bathhouse

“Wow, your skin is so white.”

“Only my butt is. My arms are darker than yours.”

“Your Chinese is really good.”

“Nothing special.”

“Where are you from?”


“How long have you been in China?”


“You here alone or with your family?”

“Alone. My wife is back home.”

“Why did you come to China?”

“I like the contrast of cultures.”

“You don’t miss your family?”

“Not too much. I like living abroad.”

“What does she do?”


“Why didn’t you bring her with?”

“She’s Chinese.”

“Is that so. Does she know you frequent these places?”


Lust & Philosophy (ch. 1): “I first saw her one spring day on my way to afternoon coffee near People’s University”

China, Beijing, Haidian District. Beijing Foreign Studies University lay along the northern bend of the West Third Ring Road before the expressway veered eastward to become the North Third Ring Road. You could not find a more nondescript neighborhood in an already blank metropolis. You were not even in Asia; you were in something called a city. No lush greens in this austere university district, with tenement housing for campuses behind walled compounds manned by teenage guards in ill-fitting uniforms.

BFSU was split into two facing campuses across the elevated expressway. I lived on the west campus. A pedestrian underpass crossed over to the east campus where I taught my classes. Except for intersections and u-turn bays, the space under the expressway was requisitioned for public parking, turning the structure into an endless monolith. A university bisected by an expressway, where one would expect a commons: I had once sought some dour symbolism in this, until attributing it to the haphazard urban inventiveness that the Chinese excel in.

Flanking both sides of the expressway was the lower Third Ring Road for local traffic, a generous sidewalk on each side. I frequently walked north along the west sidewalk on the way to the Suzhou Street subway station, the Haidian bookstore district, and the computer district of Zhongguancun, with its megastores and restaurants. We need only be concerned with the first ten minutes of this walk, the roughly 700-meter stretch from the west campus to the busy intersection at Suzhou Bridge (an expressway overpass, not a water bridge).

The route offered a cross-section of urban society coming and going from a hodgepodge of shops and businesses. Let’s start at the campus gate and work our way along the length of the austere stretch.

Lust & Philosophy (ch. 2): “To seize the event, lock its meat and bones in my jaws and relax into the thing”

“Can we go to Rexall’s today, Mom, can we?”

’Cause the drugstore on Chicago Avenue and Main Street has tons of plastic model battleships. I’m collecting them. I want to get them all. I found a secret way of paying for them after spending my allowance. When mom goes to the bathroom I take a dollar bill from her purse. As we walk to the drugstore, I run way ahead of her and place the dollar on the ground sort of hidden. Then I run back to her, hopping and skipping. Once more I run ahead of her to the spot, because now she can see me. I grab the dollar and rush back.

“Hey mom, look what I found!”

“Oh, wonderful.”

“I can buy a new model ship with it!”

I just turned nine years old. Being eight was fun. Last summer I went to Pioneer Day Camp. We made crafts. One day, I was waiting on the camp bus to go back home, and a girl sat down next to me.