Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Great Taxi Crisis of '10, Dermatology, Chinese Opera and Free Booze

Day 8: Monday September 28, 2010

Today got off to a rainy start, so most of us decided to get taxis to our shifts. The rest of the city must have had the same idea, because we spent a long, long time trying to flag down taxis. Most already had people in them and others just wouldn’t take us for some reason. After about 45 minutes we eventually had to ask the hotel to flag them down for us and showed up about an hour late to our shift.  Taxis in China have these interesting hard plastic barricades around the driver, presumably so you can't interfere with their driving. Was this a problem in the past?
Taxi Driver Shell
This was the second time we had shown up late to our shift and I HATE being late anywhere, especially when I am missing time with an amazing expert like Dr. Qiao. My distress must have been visible, because our group leader called me later in the day to say she had arranged a shuttle for us tomorrow so we would be sure to be on time. I think maybe my deep seated anxiety about being late came out of my Grandfather’s habit of taking me to kindergarten half an hour early when I was young. My whole family places a lot of emphasis on being on time but a half hour is an eternity for a young child. Needless to say, I don’t run on island time. Enough psychoanalysis.

The shift itself was very productive; I learned some great strategies for treating allergies since the weather change this week seems to have caused flare ups in a lot of folks. We also saw a patient with itching and another cosmetic case with skin discoloration. Dermatology is one of my prime interests, so I was fascinated by Dr. Qiao’s take on these. For example, another doctor here had prescribed moxa on the umbilicus to treat chronic allergies and itching. This is a good strategy, but only when symptoms are in remission, so Dr. Qiao suggested cupping on the umbilicus instead. I had never seen that before for itching. I really admire that she sees patterns so clearly and understands the course of the disease so well. This is my goal as well, to treat patients according to their unique presentation and not simply using therapies that treat their disease according to a textbook. Within every disease there are many different ways a person might express that disease depending on their constitution, past treatment etc.
Fire Cupping on the Lower Back
 After the shift I was feeling at loose ends back at the hotel. I was mentally bemoaning the fact that the group seems to be splintering off and not eating together anymore when the phone rang. It was Mary Jean, calling to say that there was a Chinese dinner opera at 7pm. My reply? “I am so there”.  We took the subway, which is quite nice, and cheap at 2 yuan each way. The dinner opera was Su Zhou style which apparently means 2 people sitting playing instruments and singing. 
Su Zhou Opera Restaurant
The singing is kind of nasal, but other than that a group member described it as “kind of like Chinese bluegrass”. I am sure we are just horribly uncultured and it’s full of deep meaning. The food was fairly decent, but the menu in English they brought us was 10 years old and horribly inaccurate. I got all excited about fragrant spiced pear which they didn’t have, then curry crab vermicelli which they also didn’t have, then duck which was 46 yuan instead of the 20 yuan listed on the menu. Eventually we got Zhao Zi (aka gyozi or pot stickers) and soup with thousand year old egg, which were good. The other dishes were unremarkable, except for the bitter melon which was true to its name.

 A middle aged man from Malaysia was sitting at a table near us and kept talking to us. He had a funny sort of Brittish accent and his side of the conversation went something like this: “Excuse me miss, are you from England? My companions and I have ordered some local alcohol and it is very strong, we can’t drink it all. What are those marks on your back? And did you have a complaint when you got that done? And did it in fact work? Did it go away? And how much did you pay for that? I shall have to have that done. 
My Cupping Marks
The marks he was referring to were from the cupping a few days prior, which had actually improved my cough, making it more productive and less frequent. His companions were three young women who looked quite bored (we wondered if he might have paid them to keep him company). At the end of the meal he gave us a part bottle of white wine they had not finished and we all agreed he was quite the character.
Free Wine!
 We found some gelato on the way back to the subway as well. We had to fight to order because in China people don’t really do the whole line business, they just shove in and ask loudly for what they want. Eventually I was able to order a rosalia and honey almond gelato, which is the best flavor combination. It’s just a fact. All in all, it was a satisfying evening. 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Buying Medicine Labeled in a Foreign Language is Fun! Kind of...

Day 7: Sunday September 27, 2010

Today I finally got to sleep in late then had a “white breakfast” as usual. I went to a cafĂ© with an Italian name “La Pavoni” for lunch.
La Pavoni - Its in English!
 They are the closest thing to a Portland coffee shop we’ve found yet, and at reasonable prices. The owner even spoke English! Coffee done right is hard to find here but they had Kona coffee and caramel Macchiatos etc. Unfortunately, I had recently had the epiphany that coffee makes me feel weird every time I drink it, so I had hot honey lemon tea. I had spaghetti ala carbonara with real raw egg on it. That is the first food in China that has made every on happy, although their veggie sandwich looked to be more sandwich than veggie. Enough food review. We went back to the Nanjing WWII memorial and saw more very sad statues and exhibits.
Nanjing WWII Memorial
More than 300,000 victims
Peace Statue
 This time we also discovered the giant peace statue too, which made me feel better about the whole thing. When I visit there I am glad the U.S. was on their side in that conflict, because Chinese folk looking at me with curiosity is enough to make me a little on edge. Kerry has a great take on it; she says people look at us as a kind of reality show. They don’t pretend not to stare so we should just enjoy the attention. I guess its not considered rude to stare in China, but I still can't get up the nerve to stare back.  

We saw another pharmacy and I was able to convey that I had a cough with yellow phlegm in Chinese to the pharmacist. Shockingly, when I read the Chinese characters on the bottle I recognized two herbs that were appropriate for my cough, so I waved off their other suggestions and bought it. At home I Goggled it, translated the Chinese and was encouraged to find I had bought the equivalent of fritillaria loquat syrup with ephedra in it. This is similar to a common patent (pre-prepared herbal formulation) back home and is perfect. It was 28 yuan, which is expensive by my new standards so hopefully it will work.
I bought cough syrup labeled only in Chinese
The ephedra thing is interesting though. There is a lot of misunderstanding about ephedra in the U.S. Basically my take on it is that the FDA ended up banning it because energy drink and diet pill manufacturers were concentrating the active ingredient to be six to ten times as strong as in the original herb. At that strength it is dangerous and can be used to manufacture crack. In the unadulterated herbal form, ephedra it is no more dangerous than any other medicinal substance when prescribed by a competent herbalist. The real bummer is that it is one of the most effective medicines for asthma and other lung conditions. There is no good substitute so countless herbal preparations aren't the same without it. 

After the herb store, my pengyou (friends) bought fire roasted sweet potatoes from street vendors and they we hit Au Chan, the Fred Meyer of Nanjing. 
Fire Roasted Sweet Potato from Street Cart
Most people were buying peanut butter and jelly, oatmeal and other familiar foods from home at this point in the trip. I was just happy the pomegranates are so cheap. If you eat pomegranates in China do you have to stay there forever? (Greek mythology reference) For dinner we walked for about an hour, trying to find a bakery that the lonely planet guide recommended. Eventually we found the right street but no bakery. Everyone was starving, so we ended up eating at a fast food chicken joint. I wasn’t too keen on it, but everyone else was pretty set on it so I got a chicken burger. Bad idea. Everyone else apparently felt fine, but that greaseburger did not sit well at all for me. Many people in the group are seeking out food that reminds them of home, but I am still excited about Chinese street food. My stomach feels better eating here since I have now adjusted. I hear that the KFC here is where foreigners go and get sick and I will not put one foot in the McDonalds. That about did me in for the evening, so I passed on the movie the group had bought from a street vendor.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Money Tree, an Awesome Taxi and Chinese SUV's

Day 6: Saturday September 26, 2010

Freedom! As today was Saturday, we had no clinic and no prearranged tours for once. I was starting to have a stuffy nose and a bit of a cough after being so wet and cold a few days before, but wasn't about to spend my free time in China in a hotel room. Some of the elements in our group felt that shopping for electronics should be at the top of our to-do list. Curious, and still slightly nervous about getting lost if I went shopping alone, I tagged along. We took the subway to get to the electronics district and I have to say I was impressed. The subway was probably the cleanest public area we'd seen yet, done out with gleaming steel and big fanciful works of art that were unmistakably Chinese, yet modern. To ride, you bought a plastic token at a touch screen that showed all the stops on an interactive map. Then you touched it to another screen to get past the turnstile and onto the platform. At the end of the ride you finally fed it back into another turnstile to get out, so I was worried I would lose my token and be trapped in the subway forever. The train platform was clean with brightly colored dragon motifs in different colors above the doors to the trains. Trains seemed to run about every five minutes and were full but not uncomfortably so. I wondered what rush hour would be like though.

 After a short ride we arrived in a part of town I didn't recognize. I have to say, there is nothing like an underground train to make me feel like I have no idea where I am. Emerging into the bright sun light, we set off past a bakery with tasty looking things in the window and down a street lined with tiny shops. One member of our party had lived in Beijing a few years before and was quickly disappointed by how much prices had increased since then. Not for the first time, I thought that it was a good thing I had come to China now, because at the rate it changes the experience will probably be totally different in a few years. Eventually we found some speakers and miscellaneous electronic goodies and decided to go back to the Confucian Temple Market, Fu Zi Miao. It was a bit far to walk and the subway didn't come out very close either so we opted for some motorized open air "taxis". These were a sort of cross between a motorcycle and a dune buggy. We didn't all fit in one, so we raced through the streets in a pack of these odd little vehicles, our Chinese drivers weaving in and out of traffic. I felt naughty riding on one without a helmet or seatbelt; It was a lot of fun.
The "Awesome Taxi"

 At Fu Zi Miao the streets were busy with people shopping and taking pictures. One of the more popular photo ops was a big fake tree I came to think of as "The Money Tree". It was festooned with golden leaves and red ribbons painted with Chinese characters.  What the ribbons said was somewhat unclear, but I think they were blessings or wishes. Sometimes, we saw people throwing more of them up into the tree.
The "Money Tree"

 You could also buy a blessing by making a donation to the temple staff. They would come up and give you a slip of paper or a trinket that had your zodiac animal on it. Then they would show you a donation log and frown and shake their heads if you didn't offer enough money.  I didn't make a donation, but some people did. It is a nice enough temple, but many of us didn't even go inside, being more interested in the surrounding market. The temple proper cost more money to visit and I think we had had our fill of temples on our previous tours. We were content to explore the side streets of Fu Zi Miao, which are reserved for pedestrians only and pack in more commerce than you can shake a stick at. You can buy anything from shoes to live turtles to giant jade sculptures and that's not even getting into the food. Many stores I wandered past sold similar goods, but there were some legitimately beautiful works of art there. I particularly admired some of the needlework or "Broider" as the sign next to it proclaimed.

I was afraid to stop and stare for long though, because the salespeople would get excited and start trying to sell me things. Saturday must have been their re-stocking day too, because there were all manner of bikes and bike trailers loaded down with boxes. My favorite picture was of the shoe delivery guy, who puts Santa to shame if you ask me. Apparently SUV's look a bit different in China.
 Chinese SUV

After Fu Zi Miao, we were not sure how to get home, so we caught some taxis and showed them our hotel card. It cost just 9 yuan to get back, and split three ways that was less than 50 cents each. Awesome! I was starting to feel really congested in the lungs by that time though, so I went with another friend to get cupping done at what was becoming our regular tuina massage place. In the states I had mostly had sliding cupping with just two cups, but today they used pump cups instead of fire cupping and put them all over my back instead of moving them around. My friend had had back pain, so she got cupping for that as well. The marks were pretty spectacular when we were done but we both agreed we both felt better.
Cupping Marks

 For dinner we went back to eating Chinese food at a little place by the hotel . My favorite thing was the "hollow heart vegetable", something I had never had or even heard of before. It was the usual struggle to find dishes that the vegetarians could eat. The attitude in China is that if you go out, you want to eat meat to impress your guests. Tofu is something you eat with meat and not instead of meat, so often the tofu dishes have meat in the sauce. Needless to say there is no vegetarian section on many menus. Customs around eating are just different in general.  Usually only one person pays for the whole meal and you fight over the bill. In our group we just fought over the vegetables and split the bill. Americans, what can you do with them?