Saturday, September 08, 2007

Let’s get Physical

Next to me, a young German woman is weeping uncontrollably. This is unnerving. To see a child crying is heart-wrenching, to see a young adult crying is even worse. I look away and take a deep breath because I am next.

My foreign expert certificate expired in July. Before I went back to the USA, Fairry -whom really I adore; she is the office manager at the company that places me - suggested I cut my trip short to two weeks so that I could renew the certificate before the end of July. This would be impossible I told her. At that time, I had already bought two sets of plane tickets; a set to the USA landing in NYC, and a set from NYC to OKC. These tickets were all non-refundable. And, I had already booked several rock shows which I did not want to back out of. Not to mention, I would not be able to see much if I shortened my trip to two weeks instead of five. Eventually, for $100, I got a tourist visa in NYC good for a year.

Now that I am back in Shanghai, my company wants me to have the proper documents in order to teach legally. Everyday, I get an email from Emily at my company. She has been orchestrating my physical examination and the procurement of my renewed foreign expert certificate. In one email, she told me I would need to bring three passport photos with me to the physical examination. In the next email, she told me I would need five.

Last night, I ransacked my apartment looking for leftover passport photos from previous passport photo shoots. I found a set of three. I needed two more.

I thought screw it, I will just take a few more at a passport photo booth. I went to the Jing’an Metro station to the passport photo booth there. For 20 rmb, I could get 4 passport photos. I put 10 rmb into the machine which it gladly accepted. However, the next 10 rmb it would not accept. I tried two different 10 rmb bills. The machine suddenly became finicky.

Aggravated, I started to sweat. No matter what I did, the machine would not take another bill. I did not know what to do. I had even put on a tie so that I would be wearing a tie in the picture. As the minutes passed, I got more irritated with the stupid machine. I had the curtain pulled Oz-like. On the other side of the curtain, I saw a pair of man’s black shoes attached to feet and legs.

I opened the curtain. A Chinese man was standing there alone, waiting to use the photo booth. I told him the problem. His English was okay. He tried to stick his 10 rmb bill into the machine. The machine would not take it. He then tried to stick a 20 rmb bill into the machine. The machine would not take it. At this point, the machine was fed up. It gave us 30 seconds to stick another 10 rmb in. The seconds crept along. This Chinese man and I kept trying different bills. The machine would not accept any of our bills at this point. Obviously, the machine would spit my money out when the time was up I assumed. This did not happen. The machine just took my 10 rmb.

This Chinese man called the number on the machine. He talked to someone on the phone about the machine. The conversation did not seem heated. When he got of the phone, he told me that someone would be here in fifteen minutes. He left and I waited.

Then I thought about it. Is the fifteen minute wait worth roughly the equivalent of $1.25? And, even if someone did show up, since a Chinese man had talked on the phone, had made the complaint; would they realize the foreigner standing by the booth was the one who had lost the 10 rmb to the machine? Would this be a ‘Stranger than Paradise’ moment? Yes, maybe, I thought; I left.

This morning, I was to meet Emily at the front gates of the Shanghai Zoo at 8:30 am. I could take bus 911 there. At 7 am, I woke with a start. Often, I wake with a start these days, as if I always, always over-sleep when actually I never do.

In three different emails, Emily had told me to not have breakfast so I did not though I did wake up hungry. I washed the sleep out of my eyes, had no coffee, and decided how I would go to the zoo. I could take bus 911. Instead, to be safe, I decided to take a taxi. I grabbed my backpack with the letters I had class 3 write telling me what they would like to learn this term. I thought I could examine them while I was waiting to be examined.

With my passport, three photos and my backpack; I headed out to catch a cab. So there was no misunderstandings with the driver, I took the Shanghai map with me. Soon after I got to the curb, a taxi pulled up. I pointed to the Shanghai Zoo on the map which is written in Chinese as well as English. The taxi driver said what I believe to be Shanghai Zoo in Chinese and pulled away. We pulled onto the elevated expressway and zipped toward the zoo.

After a few miles, we pulled off of the expressway and I recognized the area. We were in close proximity to the Moon River Diner which has the only decent non-fast-food cheeseburger that I have eaten in Shanghai. Obviously, Shanghai is not a cheeseburger town.

The taxi weaved in and out of traffic. Soon, he dropped me at the front gates of the zoo. The time was 8:00 am. I was thirty minutes early. Under the shade of the vines and tall shrubs, I pulled out the composition books in which the students had written the letters and I sat on a low retaining wall of sandstone.

Most of the letters were polite. Some were not. One writer told me that I write so much on the board that she cannot read it all. Another writer told me I have ugly handwriting. Another writer tolds me he saw me playing basketball last semester and I was not very good. That actually really hurt. I know I am not a good basketball player but I do not have to be told as much.

One letter intrigued me. This student I must meet. He seems mysterious; maybe even a literary Chinese danger, the Chinese Rushdie:

I like playing basketball. If I am playing basketball in a day, I will not feel tired. But I injured a day. I need to not play basketball until (crossed out phrase) I am healthy. But it is too long. It needs one month. I must stay at home. So I began to write. I feel writing make me feel happy. I built a blog. I put what I wrote in it. So many people can see my passage. But I don’t want to tell my family and friends. Because I have no brave to show me to someone know me. You will think that I am a bad boy. I think so.

His letter made me smile and contemplate. For a moment I ponder. I wonder what I would have written to a teacher if I was to write a letter as a junior in high school. Would I have written a paragraph? Would I have written two pages? Would I have been serious? Would I have preached the gospel of Iggy, Bowie, or the Dolls?

After I read through approximately half of the letters, Emily appeared. She hailed a taxi for us. The taxi careened through traffic and road construction. He dropped us at a ramshackle institutional building. This is the same building where I had an examination when I first arrived in China, March of 2006.

Emily paid the driver and led me like a child to the reception desk of the examination building. I stood silent as Emily talked in Chinese to the receptionist. Three young Germans, a female and two males, arrived just before us. Emily was given number 55. We went into a room armed with a questionnaire that listed about 100 diseases, none of which I have had.

We gave the questionnaire to the cashier and paid for the examination 700 rmb (nearly $100). As we waited for the number 55 to be called, I read through the rest of the letters. The last one, I commented on as number 52 was called out.

This time, the examination seemed to be organized in a better fashion than when I was here over a year and a half ago. Once my number was called, I went from room to room being poked and prodded with not much lag time in between each poke and prod.

Blood tests have never really been an issue with me. They are always uncomfortable but just a minor annoyance. This time, however, when I walked into the blood test room, I tried not to appear afraid. The sight of the weeping young German woman gave me a frightful pause. Her two German friends were in the room with her. The tears came uncontrollably from her face. In German, her friends tried to console her. She would not be consoled.

Adding to my fear was the unknowing. These friends of hers were trying to calm her in a language that I could not understand. Was she really so upset about giving a minute amount of blood. Suddenly, I felt as if I was six years old again, a little boy wanting his mother. I turned away and waited for my turn.

Maybe because I had just seen the young German girl crying, or maybe because here in China I have a heightened awareness of everything but when I saw the needle that they were going to stick into my arm, I nearly fainted. I swear the fucker looked like a knitting needle or something with which you would stitch leather furniture. No wonder that young German girl was bawling her eyes out. They probably ripped the vein right of her arm.

I sure hope this is my last physical examination for awhile.


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