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Man Down in China


A small concrete room in a dilapidated hospital, the bare concrete walls stained a nasty scatological brown, discarded plastic wrapping in the corner, a single dull bulb swaying from the ceiling. Had I reached hell? I flapped around on the yellow sheets of the rickety metal frame bed as four Chinese hospital workers leaned over me, trying to keep me still. One of them wielded a syringe with a long needle. My translator and best friend in the People`s Republic, Pi Wen Wei, calmly listened to me as I frantically implored him to stop them injecting me. I was having a massive attack of heart palpitations that had been pounding away in my chest for nearly two hours. It had never happened before. The fear and shock of my body`s malfunctioning was scaring the shit out of me, but what was worse was the fear of what the unknown substance was that was about to hit my bloodstream, plus the paranoia that the needle was laced with the HIV virus. Things were desperate; I was on the verge of going out of my mind. Just then a higher power interceded on my behalf or perhaps my body knew now was the time to come to its own rescue. Anyway, my heart suddenly caught its proper rhythm and slowed down. A wave of calmness swept like a cool breeze through my body. I was alright; the Chinese medics at Number One Hospital in Yueyang City in Hunan Province stopped pinning me to the bed and backed a step away. The suspect needle was lowered and I breathed freely.

How did I get into such dire straits? Well on the most basic level, my heart had never been the best human pump; I was born with a heart murmur. Circumstantially, I was half way through a two year contract teaching in China. It was way back in 1998 when China`s scary economic world predominance was still a far-fetched dream of the politburo. At this time China was considered a poor country and a worthy recipient of charitable aid.

After finishing university I could see the winds of change were blowing through the welfare system of Britain. The nation`s bigoted wrath was continually being directed at the shiftless unemployed. Job club and the job seekers allowance was taking the fun out of being on the dole. Faced with the distasteful prospect of having to cut my hair and get a ‘real job’, I cut my dreads and applied to VSO for a teaching job. Losing my precious and dirty locks was not in vein, they accepted me; and within a few months I was on a BA flight to Beijing with a hundred other English teachers destined to be posted to rural nowhere places to improve the quality of English language education in Universities and Teaching Colleges across the width and breath of the Middle Kingdom.

I was sent to a small city of a million odd chopstick users, famous for a tower, a big lake full of bilharzia, an annual dragon boat race and its proximity to Mao Ze Dong`s birthplace. A place bereft of Mcdonalds, KFCs, shopping malls and foreigners. The attraction and challenge about the city was that it was so damned Chinese. When I ventured into the city centre to try and find something worth buying I was invariably surrounded by bug eyed locals who had no shame in pointing at me and loudly repeating the mantra, “Laowei, laowei!”

Everything was a challenge, from posting a letter, to finding the bloke with the keys for the TV cabinet in the classroom, to politely refusing to eat chicken`s feet, to opening a bank account, to getting sex. The list of daily obstacles blew my mind. When family and friends asked me what it was like living in China I always used to say, “Never boring.” There was always Monty Pythonesque absurdities to write home about. I loved and hated it. At twenty seven years old this was a brand of madness I reveled in – the outrageous and farcical was never far way. And through it all I leaned heavily on the support of my fellow VSO teacher and the young Chinese chap assigned by the college`s Foreign Affairs Office to help and spy on me. As luck would have it, he was no fan of communism and he had good English. In no time I had him hooked on the idea of being a ‘geezer’. We spent many an hour smoking fags, talking about shagging the teachers and students and looking for the kind of trouble young blokes crave.


One such channel for our youthful energies was a terrible disco in town called Dong Fan Quai Cha. It was January, I had recently returned from my month long winter holiday and was in a state of extreme elation, I had recently managed to get into the pants of a Japanese woman who had come to my college to learn Chinese. My fellow VSO teacher had been replaced by a young chap called Jim who was a top bloke and up for the crack. It seemed my life in China was panning out nicely. The job was a doddle: just 14 hours a week and I had learnt to say ‘no’ effectively to the numerous requests I had for giving free private lessons to all and sundry.

I had soon come to the conclusion that charity was an alien concept to the Chinese who preferred instead to build up a convoluted web of favours and connections (gaunxi) to manipulate each other and informally continue the way Chinese have always done things despite official communist ideology to the contrary. Westerners with noble notions of helping people were soon disabused of their fantasies in the hard-nosed practical atmosphere of everyday Chinese corruption, favouritism, cronyism and nepotism. None of my fellow Chinese teachers gave a flying fuck about their educational effectiveness. They had few teaching hours. They used the students to carry out personal errands and not infrequently the male teachers managed to snag the virginity of a pretty student. Moral outrage never manifested itself. More important were the struggles for positions of power within the college and shadowy communist party.

To return to the story, the night in question was the best night of the week, Saturday night. That night of debauch that any young man with fire in his blood and mischief in his soul could not resist celebrating. So it was that Jim and I planned a big one. We got the Japanese in our apartment block on board and of course Pi Wen Wei was up for it. To kick off the evening Jim and I had a beer on his balcony. I had scored a half kilo of weak weed in Dali in South China during my holiday and we tucked into that with the weak beer. Weak beer and weak ganja in the right quantities produced the desired effect.


After laying the foundations for the evening, we rounded up the other Japanese staying in our apartment block, my girlfriend and Pi We. The girls had been into town to get $5 perms and were all dolled up. In high spirits we set off in taxis to town and the Dong Fan Quai Cha nightclub. We were soon ensconced around a table drinking expensive bad beer and enjoying the bizarre sight of the Chinese dancing in lines facing the DJ. Even in the free for all of a disco they managed to appear regimented. Most of the music was poor Chinese pop music, but the occasional Western tune found its way onto the decks. When it did Jim and I seized the moment and squeezed onto the dance floor to strut our absurdly tall English bodies. After a few hours we repaired to outside where there was a noodle stand under polyester sheeting. They sold the same beer as inside but for half the price. Such a bargain was too good to pass up, so as the Japanese tucked into their pork and noodles, Jim and I shared a couple more beers. My clothing was sweat soaked and my pupils dilated from all the inebriants. The night was shaping up fine and I still had intimacies with my new bird to look forward to.

Eventually, 2 am came round and we prepared to taxi it back to the college. It was in the taxi that my heart started pounding in a funny way. I was in pain and shock. What the hell was happening to me? Every bump on the unpaved road was exacerbating the pain in my chest. Pi We was most concerned for me and asked if I wanted to go to hospital. I refused thinking that the palpitations must surely soon stop. I got to my room. Sweat poured off me and there was no let up with the pain.


After an hour hugging myself and gritting my teeth I gave up trying to tough it out and asked Pi We to take me to hospital. He ran off to wake up the college chauffeur. Within twenty minutes I was huddled in the back of the President`s black car and headed for the big hospital in the centre of town. And that`s how I ended up in that hellish room with stained walls.

Once my heart had corrected itself I was taken to a room and promptly fell into a deep sleep.

Next morning I awoke to find I was sharing my ward with two other guys. The room was long and narrow with a squat and drop toilet in the corner. Nobody came to clean the room and nobody came around with food. Instead relatives did the nursing and cleaning. They bought in food in tiffin boxes. Those not blessed with solicitous relatives had to make their way down three flights of stairs (the elevator was out of order) in search of food. On one occasion I saw a man dragging his drip and drip stand out onto the street to get a nourishing bowl of pork fat and noodles.

In the afternoon Pi We visited me and managed to rustle up a doctor. My two neighbours were most impressed that I had achieved the near miraculous feat of summoning a doctor.

The doctor in question was a pretty young female who listened to my heart and gave me a once over. When she noticed the freckles on my arm she stopped in her tracks. She had never seen anything like it before. She thought I had some rare skin condition. This did not reassure me. She finally took some blood samples and beat a hasty retreat. Before she departed, I got Pi We to insist on some type of explanation for what had happened to me. She hesitated before declaring that in her opinion the reason for my palpitations attack was ‘too much sex’. I asked in all seriousness if I could get a certificate stating that I was a victim of my own sexual success. She blushed and slipped out of the room. My rice chomping room-mates were in hysterics by the end of the examination. I practiced my pidgin mandarin with them and they soon declared that the laowei (foreigner) was a thoroughly good sport.


I spent another night at Number One Hospital and the next morning decided to check myself out. The blood tests had drawn a blank and it was obvious to me that I needed better medical advice. Once I had overcome my initial attack the experience of being in a Chinese hospital in a provincial city had been surreal and fun very much in keeping with the general weirdness of China. Before allowing me to leave they loaded me up with hundreds of pills that looked like rabbit droppings. Needless to say I threw them in the bin when I got back to my flat. My medical expenses ran to about $50 which the college nicely paid.

How did all end? Well I phoned VSO in Beijing and they got a real doctor to phone me back. I recounted my tale (edited naturally) and described my pains. He deduced that I hadn`t had a heart attack but to be on the safe side I sure get on a train to the capital where I could receive a proper examination. To cut a long story short, the doctor rumbled me for the ganja smoking and I got a good ticking off from my field officer. They put me on a plane home. A kind doctor in the UK saw me privately but didn`t bill me. They bumped me up a waiting list and I had an ablation operation where they fired a laser at my heart to burn off the dysfunctional node that had upset my heart`s rhythm. Six months after that memorable night I was back in China. My girlfriend had waited for me and Pi We had persuaded the college to give me my back-pay for my six months absence. The palpitation attacks came back a few times after that but I managed to sort myself out by quitting drinking and practising Chi Gong, a version of Tai Chi that focused on righting the body`s energy flow.


Sadly, I later went back to boozing and let the Chi Gong fall by the wayside. What does remain with me, however, is a belief in the efficacy of traditional Chinese medicine and a fond recollection of being diagnosed as a sex addict.


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