Adil:You know the reason I want to specialise in something procedural, right?
Adil:I love how my hands feel after a surgical scrub with Betadine.
Adil:Yep. I could do it all day.
Melissa:Doesn't that kill your skin?
Adil:No, only with Betadine. Not with the Chlorhexadine wash. Just the Betadine. I feel like my hands are reborn every time.
Adil:But that's what you need, something about your job that you love. You know a lot of anaesthetists really like the feeling of doing a successful lumbar puncture? That give when the needle goes into the spinal cord. And lots of venepuncturers love that give when they enter a vein. Or that click when the vaccutainer clicks onto the guard.
Last week I met Mrs. X, a careful elderly woman who, when I asked her how she got in, shocked me by saying she walked all the way from suburbs away. We had a chat during her over 75 year old health check (which I was conducting). She told me about her walking, and how she liked being on her own. I noted that she was more isolated than a year ago from those around her but didn’t say anything. I asked her what she liked doing every day. I wondered if being widowed was hard, what being married was like, and if she missed it. And if she got lonely.
Two days ago, I got this email from my employer:
.From: C.S. To: Melissa Chen Date: 21 September, 2010 14:02 Subject: RE: Are you coming in this week?
Hi Melissa. Thanks for letting me know your work availability. I forgot to mention Melissa, Mrs X. was in earlier this week and she mentioned how she thought you were kind and caring. She told me that she’d never spoken to anybody about the abuse in her marriage before. She said she walked out of that room feeling lighter than she had in years.
Just the other day I was despairing about the whole degree to my father who, as compassionately as he could, admonished me for considering wasting time and money and their life’s blood. I’d, of course, been joking. It had been in a moment of hatred for my research project, and I’d been generalising. I would never quit med. But more and more I’m losing track of why I’m doing it.
People like Mrs X. make the choice between going on and giving up for me every day.
“Have you ever seen a man killed?” I asked him. He glanced down, surprised by the question. “Have you” I asked again. “Yes,” he said. “Was it bloody?” “Yes.” I thought for a moment. “Why was the man killed? The one you saw.” “Because he was weak.” “That’s all?” Lolo shrugged and rolled his pant leg back down. “That’s usually enough. Men take advantages of weakness in other men. They’re just like countries in that way. The strong man takes the weak man’s land. He makes the weak man work in his fields. If the weak man’s woman is pretty, the strong man will take her.” He paused to take another sip of water, then asked, “Which would you rather be.” I didn’t answer, and Lolo squinted up at the sky. “Better to be strong,” he said finally, rising to his feet. “If you can’t be strong, be clever and make peace with someone who’s strong. But always better to be strong yourself. Always.”
—Barack Obama, conversing one day with his (relatively new) stepfather (who’d served in New Guinea), as a child. From “Dreams from my father” — Barack Obama
Biting into a plump, strawberry gravid and getting strawberry-scented juice all over my fingers — an sticky, heady scent reminiscent of the earth from which it grew upon, and of sunshine. I could probably save a substantial amount of money if I didn’t insist on buying strawberries and figs so incessantly.
The list of foods I’m walled in with is growing: salted ducks eggs, dried cuttlefish, peach tea, chrysanthemum blossoms and lemon steeped in water, honeyed ham, avocados…
These nights I can be found cross legged on my bedroom floor, hair brushed to a side, legs shifting restlessly, fingers clutching at the edges of one of the oversized shirts I wear to bed. I try to read articles, enter data, but I drifting off. Like a petulant child, I didn’t go back to the GP when she motioned to my bottoming iron stores on computer screen, though I did note the dangerously B12 levels and wondered if that was why I’d had so many terrifying memory-blanks for naming-words.
The only escape is in reading. Desperate to get cash out and needing to buy something the equivalent of ten dollars at a convenience store, I picked up my first print copy of The New Yorker, which I devoured on the 72 tram down St Kilda Rd. I am going over The Good Women Of China by Xin Ran over and over, heartwrenching chapter after heartwrenching chapter.
Although I’ve lost the bookmark I bought that inspired me to pick it up in the first place (I suspect it’s fallen under my bed), I’ve finished Dreams From My Father. It’s surprisingly lovely, without a huge political agenda as I had cynically expected. Obama’s narrative voice sounds every bit like his speaking voice. There’s a quite authority in his retelling. Sometimes I think back to the passages where he describes visiting Kenya and it feels like a dream. He was welcomed back with open arms by the families of his fathers’ other wives and it’s like a happy story, a world without jealousy (save a few examples).
Would that ever happen here? Perhaps the stronger the notion of love, the more we cling to the person. In Kenya, courtship didn’t seem to feature as much. Does it matter then that your husband found other women if you were in a family-arranged bind? In China, in the olden days when wives were a matter of politics, jealousy was rife. However, it wasn’t love but preferential treatment that coloured views of each other. If your husband loved you more, if your mother in law favoured you, or if you had sons, then you were given better things, less work, more food. Your children got more attention.
Strangely, his story of finding acceptance made me realise that my seemingly easy integration into western culture growing up (and even now) wasn’t as easy as I’d originally thought. His words about finding acceptance in two worlds rang true. When a grade-school Obama pushed away the black girl he’d made friends with on the playground because of heckling by other children, his puzzling mix of of confusion, relief and horror as he watched her run away echoed mine acutely. Not even six months ago I found myself agreeing with a mocking statement about my own culture (in an indirect way) trying to make friends with someone who probably didn’t know that they were coming across as slightly arrogant and offensive. You don’t have to be a black person in America in the 1970s and 80s to appreciate it. You could be any minority anywhere.
It’s strange, but until I read the book I never stopped to think about it.
I think the one of the biggest hypocrisies in the world are people who’ve had to assimilate into another culture and who still show intolerance and an unwillingness to understand the plight of others.
Rain dogged the steps of pedestrians this week. The entrance of the Alfred was slippery, full of muddy footprints from people who’d come in from the park. Having lost my umbrella some time ago on a 703 bus to Oakleigh, I hastily bought one from the hospital pharmacy.
Somehow the chill of it had gone. The first few days of September were bright, cheerful — at least in the mornings — the cycle of steadily building heat followed by bursts of rain seemed to be starting again. In summer, at it’s most exaggerated, thunderstorms often disrupt the unrelenting heat.
Trying to write things up for my thesis has been hard. I can’t concentrate at home, but leaving it is almost like running uphill. Jonathan and I share a desk at the office, and the computer there is one of those ones from the late 90’s, complaining constantly with creaks and groans.
John, Mark’s friend whom I met in Queensland, and I were having a discussion about books. Nick Hornby came up, and the discussion inevitably turned to ‘High Fidelity’, the only Hornby book I’ve ever read. I have this memory about writing a long response to it, so I tried to dig it up. All I found instead were notes on different days saying I’d bought it, and that I’d started reading it, and that I’d (at a later date) picked it up and put it down 17 times in a month without getting past the first few pages. The story had disturbed me, although this probably wasn’t too much to do with the book itself.
John says that the book made him uncomfortable. The way Rob did things, the way Laura did things, it made him think they were childish to get back at each other. There was also something in it that he identified with, however. Hornby, he said, wrote for guys and John himself was going through a Hornby phase.
That got me thinking: I haven’t read anything for the longest time. A few days ago I picked up Barack Obama’s first autobiography — the one before his presidency campaign — and found I enjoyed it. Will had lent it to me last summer, along with Steve Hawking’s book and I’d finished neither. It wasn’t until I’d bought a new bookmark that I’d reached for my bookshelf and pulled it out.
I’m a bit nostalgic about the times at the library from my childhood, curled up on a couch, devouring pages of something.
Why do we lose the time to read for pleasure as we get older? One of the biggest tragedies of bearing responsibility. :)
“To fall in love is easy, even to remain in it is not difficult; our human loneliness is cause enough. But it is a hard quest worth making to find a comrade through whose steady presence one becomes steadily the person one desires to be.”—Anna Louise Strong (via kari-shma)
The cleaner who comes to clean the student room at the hospital is an old Chinese man. Before him, there had been another who Adil reminded me was called Dale. Dale reminded me of Santa, and for some reason was under the [very false] impression that I owned a million pairs of shoes. I’d played along to humour him, harbouring a discomfort at the slightly offensive, sexist jokes about women and footwear. Later, Adil would admit that it had probably been fault. He’d been having one of those bloke chats with the man about women and shoes one night he’d stayed late to study and there’d probably been some transference of memory.
The current cleaner is quiet, and knows very little English. He talks to me in Chinese though, as if grateful to have someone to converse with. If I don’ know his name, it’s that I’ve asked and the Chinese has been lost on me. He’s younger than my grandfather but older than my dad, perhaps. He’s dark skinned like someone from the South, and reminds me of a peasant who, after the revolution, had moved to the big city to open a stall and sell farm goods, or to be household help to rich city folk to support his family after the cultural revolution.
His wife cleans too. I know this because I see them come in together sometimes on nights when there’s papers to be read, and it’s almost impossible not to fall asleep in my own room whilst doing it. He frequently apologises at the best of times for moving my stuff out of the way, or for the loudness of the vacuum and asks me to translate this to people in the room who don’t speak Chinese.
"I have to," he says. "Otherwise the boss will be angry." He clears the visible rubbish and doesn’t bother to do much else most nights.
The bosses are angry. I’m centrifuging a sample in the Immunology labs one morning when I see one of the lab supervisors march human resources over, pointing out places where blood spills have lingered for weeks. I know the man is responsible for this floor too. I’d brought samples to the freezer late one night and he’d been there, rubbish bag in hand. “Tell someone about this,” the lab head says.
Last year, early on to meeting him, I had snapped in this blog on a bad day after he asked me for my phone number so he could come to me for medical advice. I’d not given it, but I’d felt so bad about the awful and uncharacteristic small minded-ness I’d displayed then (in my head) that I found myself trying get to know him better, asking after his life, his family.
The cleaner, I’ve discovered over time and various moments of conversation, is a genuinely good person. He tells me I work too hard, and that I should look after myself more despite us not exchanging more than a dozen words at a time. He stores lost property he finds in a cupboard beneath the sink, hoping people will figure out to look there at some point.
He has a self-proclaimed simple view of people. He doesn’t really understand ‘academic types,’ by which he means us medical students/doctors, and of which his younger sister is one of. She’s a lecturer at an university but when he speak of her his voice is disapproving. She’d fallen in love with a dashing young man at university. He’d courted her intensely and they’d married. He was a lecturer too — a professor. One day he met a student in one of his classes. They started sleeping together.
"She’s had the most tragic life of all," he says, as a warning. "raising my niece by herself. I have an older sister too. She married a simple man, a farmer. He’s not fancy. But they’ve been together for many years, and they’ve retired now. Is your boyfriend from Beijing too?"
I’d considered lying, briefly. Sometimes it’s just easier because the asker was Chinese, and of my parents’ generation. “What boyfriend?”
"No boyfriend?" The disapproval was there, as expected. "You should really consider getting one. What year of university are you?"
"Fifth year," I sigh. I know what’s coming — a lecture. I’m not in a hurry, but I don’t know how to explain that to him.
"Don’t make your standards are too high," he continues. "It doesn’t matter how good looking they are. Find someone who’s good. Someone faithful. Read their heart. Above all else, you must find someone with a good heart."
"But that’s the hardest part."
"I know, but you must." He picks up a few pieces of rubbish, dusts around the tops of the tables. It’s beginning to sound like a perilous journey that he’s tasked me to undertake. Fraught with dragons. Of the fairy tale sort.
As a child, my father had tried to teach me patience by making me do many jigsaw puzzles of increasing piece count. Looking at the cleaner, I realised why it was doomed to fail. That wasn’t patience. This thing that resided in the cleaner was. He seemed to wait for life, and its tidings, with a quiet, ordinariness. He spoke with an ‘this too, will pass’ offhandedness about anything and everything.
I hope I’ll have that kind of steadiness some day. Of knowing something inside out, even if it’s just one corner of the world. That people are inherently a certain way. Perhaps it comes with age.
(Adil: “He’s so kind it’s creepy.” He thinks about it then adds, “Sometimes I think he’ll snap and go on a genocidal rampage.”