Monday, September 25, 2006

China Stories Pt. 29: "Make sure the syringe is new."

One night, I got a call asking me to take someone to the hospital.

Cliff was a satellite technician. He was from Oklahoma or Texas, I think. He was probably about 50, balding with glasses. He'd one of his arms had been amputated.

One night I got a call that Cliff was sick – he was having some kind of allergic reaction, and needed to go to the hospital. He needed a car, and he needed someone to accompany him. I arranged a car, and headed downstairs.

When I got downstairs, there was an ambulance, too. Apparently, his head was swelling, and it was decided that he needed medical care more urgently. Cliff would ride in the ambulance, and I would follow in a car driven by Mr. Xu. I felt responsible for making sure Cliff didn't have anything done to him that he didn't understand and consent to. Secondly, I was there to be reassuring.

We headed out of the hotel, the ambulance ahead with its light blaring. We tried to stay with the ambulance, but since we weren't allowed legally to run lights like the ambulance, inevitably we lost it. I got mad at Mr. Xu for missing the light.

I was agitated – I was supposed to be taking care of Cliff, and now I was lost. Mr Xu told me he knew a shortcut. I was skeptical. We set off, quickly leaving the main street for a smaller street. Mr. Xu sped along in the dark, cruising through intersections without stop signs. We turned off the street into a "hu tong" – an ancient Beijing alley, still as narrow and crooked as it had been for hundreds of years. It wouldn't have taken more than a three-wheel bicycle to block our path, which would have meant backtracking. I was nervous – was Mr. Xu lost? Did he know what he was doing? I urged him to hurry. I guess I figured if we're going to get lost or stuck, we might as well get there sooner.

But we eventually emerged from the warren of alleys, and Mr Xu adeptly swerved across several lanes of the main road, and into the hospital. Cliff was just getting out of the ambulance.

Perfect, just as I’d planned. I was relieved, and I apologized to Mr. Xu for ever having doubted him.

We were led to a room, where a nurse took Cliff’s temperature.

"So, not feeling too well, huh?" I said. Ooh, nice. Smooth bedside manner there. I'm sure Cliff was impressed.

"Nope." He said simply. "I don't know what happened, I had dinner, and then I was up in my room and my head started to throb, and I got dizzy."

I didn't really know what he had looked like before, but I guessed his head was quite swollen. It was red and blotchy. His skin looked angry.

"Do you have allergies?" I asked, as I leafed through my little red English-Chinese dictionary to look up the word. (What, am I a doctor now? Just try to be helpful.)

"I have had, yes. But not to food, so I'm not sure what this might be." I can't imagine it gave Cliff a lot of comfort to be in a Chinese hospital in the middle of the night in the care of a 20 year-old carrying a dictionary.

Meanwhile, I was just thankful I'd had the presence of mind to remember the dictionary.

The doctor came in and asked some fairly basic questions, which I translated. Occasionally I looked up words. I think I had to look up dizzy. Headache, I knew.

The doctor said he thought it was an allergic reaction, and said he wanted to administer a cortisone shot. (I knew the words for injection, and eventually figured out we were talking about cortisone. I knew it wasn't opium, the one injectable thing I knew how to say in Chinese.)

I explained this to Cliff, and he thought about it. I felt that he was trying to read in me whether or not I had confidence in what was going on here. And in fact, I did believe that we were in pretty capable hands.

"Well," said Cliff, " okay. Will they use a disposable syringe? Make sure the syringe is new."

Okay, I thought. That's a good point, and I should make sure about that. When the doctor got back, I did make a point of asking him if he was using a "single-use" only syringe. Yes, he replied patiently.

"It's never been used, you say?"

"Yes," he said, this time with a hint of reproach. I think he felt mildly insulted. To me, this was reassuring.

The doctor told me that the shot would have to be given in the buttocks, which I dutifully explained to Cliff. They gestured a little, at which point Cliff began to, um, prepare for the shot. We actually talked as this was going on, about what I don't remember, but it helped break the tension.

A nurse sterilized the area where the shot would be given. Then the doctor came over, holding up the syringe, still sealed in a plastic sheath.

Cliff nodded approvingly – not an easy thing to do while bent over an exam table. Then he said, "tell him to let me know when he's going to put it in."

Just then, before I could say anything, the doctor inserted the syringe. It was a pretty physical activity, since the shot had to be into the muscle. And this was no baby syringe, either. The doctor was sort of leaning into it. Cliff was clearly a tough guy, and he endured it stoically. It was an odd moment for us to be sharing. But memorable.

We sat in the exam room for an hour or so, and then the doctor came back to check on Cliff. He was improving dramatically. Eventually, he gave Cliff another medicine, an antihistamine or something, to take later. We thanked the doctor and returned to the hotel. It was about 4 am – time for work again.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

China Stories Pt 28: Waldo Zai Nar?*

Song Shui! Dui Hua!

Protestors confronted a cordon of People's Armed Police around the Great Hall of the People, and got very close, but never caused a confrontation. The PAP were severely outnumbered and there were no barriers - beyond the PAP, one had only to bound up the step and be inside the Great Hall. As a result, the PAP were VERY tense. But the students were very disciplined - remarkably so for such a large, uncoordinated group. In fact, at several points when it appeared that a confrontation was imminent, the students policed themselves, booting any troublemakers to the rear.

I remember two chants from these confrontations (though they may have taken place at different times):

"Song shui!" Bring us water. I think this started off as a literal request. The square was hot during the day, and the students were there for days on end, so it was no surprise that they wanted water. But it was most certainly symbolic as well. The students were asking the government to show more compassion and concern for their plight. This appeal was probably instrumental in eliciting the sympathy of the general public.

"Dui hua!" Dialogue. As the students were emboldened, they asked for a dialogue. And to a degree that was all they wanted. They never asked for democratic reforms as we might think of them - one man, one vote. Rather they wanted greater transparency and accountability. They wanted transparency in government dealings, and accountability. And they wanted to be able to express their opinions about it, but not necessarily to vote.

Waldo Zai Nar?

One day I was out with Brad and John, shooting video on and around the square. We'd started early in the morning and by mid-afternoon we were hungry, but we weren't ready to pack it in yet, so they sent me to get food. As luck would have it, there was a Kentucky Fried Chicken not far from the southwest corner of Tiananmen Square. I came back with Original Recipe, mashed potatoes, cole slaw, and sporks.

So there I was, wading through Tiananmen Square with my chicken (and sides!). I weaved my way through tens if not hundreds of thousands of Chinese students demonstrating in the name of democracy.

Stand back, protesters! Coming through! I've got lunch.

Since I was carrying a big box with red and white stripes on it, I thought the scene must have looked like some sort of "Where's
Waldo?," cultural hegemony edition.

*Yes, that would be "Where's Waldo?" in Mandarin.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

China Stories Pt. 27: May 4, 1989

Note: I have a bunch of pictures and other stuff, but I do not have a scanner. As soon as I get one (or get access to one), I will put them up.

Over the course of April and May, I spent several days and nights out with a camera crew covering the demonstrations.

The days blended into each other, and I have lost track of when I saw the various things I saw going on in the square. I will try to recount a few of the more memorable moments.

Mostly, I was out with the Beijing-based crew. The soundman was American. Bradley was the guy who had previously studied in our program, and come out to recruit us. The cameraman, John, was American-born Chinese. He'd been based in Beijing for 10 years or more, and wasn't going anywhere. He liked living in Beijing, he had a wife and kids there, and I think his father had retired there as well.

May 4 promised to be a big day in terms of demonstrations. The May 4th Movement was a patriotic movement that originated in response to what were perceived as the very unfair (to China) terms of the Treaty of Versailles. In the treaty, China's sovereign interests were ignored, as German-occupied territory in China was turned over to Japan, rather than returned to Chinese sovereignty. (One area occupied by Germany was Shandong, including the port city of Qingdao, famous for its nearby mineral springs. The Germans used it to make pretty decent beer – Tsing-tao.)

This sparked demonstrations for greater Chinese nationalism and for modernization, and against China's feudal society based on Confucianism, which was seen as weak. Intellectuals and students were at the forefront of this movement, and led demonstrations. On May 4th, 1919, thousands of university students went to Tiananmen (Gate – there was no square at that point) to protest the "unequal treaty." Some of the leaders of the May 4th Movement later became the founding figures of the Chinese Communist Party- such as Li Dazhao, who helped found the CCP, and who had hired a young assistant librarian at Beijing University named Mao Zedong.

We started the day early at Bei Da. It was the first time I'd been back on campus in 10 days or so. Before we got started, I bought a commemorative stamped envelope at the Bei Da post office. I don't know why – I was there, it was there. I still have it.

Brad, John and I positioned ourselves for the beginning of the march on the roof of the apartment building directly opposite the main gate of the university.

Once the march began, a large group numbering at least 10,000 flooded from the gate, jubilant, triumphant. They set off for Tiananmen Square.

We followed the group all day. As it made its way to the square, it swelled to number in the tens of thousands, maybe over 100,000. (Significantly, the protests had begun to attract people from all walks of life, not just students. This was the cause of grave concern to the leadership.) We would drive ahead of the crowd and find a position – say, on an overpass. I would carry the tripod, help set up, and then keep the crowd from jostling the crew (as best I could). We would follow the protesters for awhile, and then get back in the car and leap ahead again.

The march grew tense at one point, when the police had set up a cordon to try to prevent the marchers from getting to the square. The police were not prepared for the sheer size of the crowd, nor were they prepared to use violence against the crowd. In any case, the crowd was quite peaceful, even jovial. When they came to the police, who stood with arms linked, they simply pressed their way through.

At one point, we drove out to Beijing Normal University, where we heard that one of the student leaders was speaking. We got some footage of one of the young leaders, a young man named Wu'er Kaixi. He later joined other student leaders in holding a televised meeting with senior leaders in the Great Hall of the people. Wearing hospital garb and with an IV in his arm (he'd fainted earlier, I think, and had been taken to the hospital), he spoke defiantly and directly to the assembled senior leadership of China. His lack of deference to these elders was shocking, but he was articulate, forceful, and above all, charismatic. It was riveting. (Imagine Bush and Cheney consenting to sit down with student leaders from UC Berkeley or Harvard, on live TV, and having the student leaders tear the POTUS and VPOTUS a new one.)

(Hang on a sec, I'm still savoring that image. Heh.)

I saw another leader that day – the main leader of the group from Bei Da, Wang Dan. He was a young history student, 20 or 21 years old. He was smart, articulate, and quiet. He probably had been one of the people who spoke before the first march to the square, but I'm not sure. I took a picture of him on May 4, because I thought, "here is a person who is playing a major role in this event. One day he'll be a political leader. Or a martyr."

Eventually we made it down to the square itself, which was teeming with well over 100,000 people by now. We walked all around the square, shooting footage of whatever was happening.

I thought back to the demonstrations I had seen on tv, while I studying Chinese back in Vermont two years before.

I asked John, "how do these demonstrations compare to the ones in 1987?"

John looked at me in disbelief. "There's no comparison. These are about a hundred times larger."

Thursday, September 07, 2006

China Stories Pt. 26: Dan Rather and Me

I had two encounters with Dan Rather, both of them pleasant. And actually, I'd heard nothing bad about him. My friend Bob had ended up in the (somewhat) enviable position of being Mr. Rather's personal China production assistant, so he spent quite a bit of time with him, and didn't have a bad word to say. My own encounters were more comical.

The first time I met Dan (I'm sure he'd be okay with me referring to him by his first name), it was 11 in the evening or so, and I was minding the car pool. We had a handful of drivers on call, and there wasn't too much going on. The phone rang – someone said, "Dan wants chocolate ice cream." Okay. I don't remember why this request ended up coming to me, but I went up to Mr. Rather's room and delivered a bowl of chocolate ice cream to him. He answered the door, clothed, perfectly normal and civil, and said thank you. I assume that afterwards he ate the ice cream. (To be fair, I did enjoy imagining what else might have been going on beyond his hotel room door when I dropped off the ice cream.)

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
Dan Rather in Tiananmen Square. Not my photo - found it on the website of the Houston Chronicle, which said he was he was "the only network news anchor broadcasting from the pro-democracy uprising."

The next time I encountered Dan was a little scarier.

I was running the car pool, and it was a slow day, not much was going on. My friend Topher called. "Hey," he said. "I need to run out to the airport to change some tickets, then stop at the Friendship Store. Can I get a car?"

"Sure," I said. "Take Mr. Fu."

I liked Topher – he worked hard, had a good sense of humor. I liked Mr. Fu, too – he was one of my favorites, too, and since he drove one of the Mercedes, he didn't get out as much, since we kept the Mercedes in reserve for the VIPs.

A half hour later, another call comes down, from one of the producers. "Dan wants to go out," he said.

"Sure," I said. "Let's see…"

I looked around. I knew I didn't have Mr. Fu, one of the two Mercedes drivers. Where was Mr. Duan, my other Mercedes driver? Where…oh. Oh shit. I'd sent him out, too.

"Um, okay, I'll uh, meet you in the lobby."

I went down to the lobby, and met the producer, whose name I don't recall. Let's call him Tom the Sycophant.

"So, unfortunately, I don't have a Mercedes for Mr. Rather right now," I said. Tom turned ashen. For a split second, I think he felt sorry for me, but then he came to his senses and began feeling sorry for himself.

"How could you do that? What are you going to do about it? Call them, tell them to come back!"

Of course I'd thought of that. But there was no way to get in touch with Topher or Mr. Fu, and I didn't know where they were anyway. Likewise Mr. Duan.

Tom sounded absolutely sick. Distraught. In his mind he was being frog-marched out of the hotel with a banker's box of his belongings, because of me. It was the apocalypse.

Seeing how wrecked this guy was, I started to really worry – would Dan Rather dress me down in the lobby, and then summarily fire me on the spot? Would he hit me? It looked as though Tom thought that was possible.

I decided to take responsibility for this situation, which I had created, and deal with it head on. (This is really out of character for me, by the way. You can ask anyone.)

Tom's radio crackled – "He's on his way down," said the radio.

Ding! The elevators opened, and Dan Rather strode out, wearing his safari vest. (A bit of an affectation, but whatever. He's Dan Rather.) My stomach tightened and my heart raced as Dan approached the entrance, where Tom the ashen-faced Sycophant and I awaited. As we exited the hotel, I said, "Mr. Rather, I'm sorry, but I don't have a Mercedes Benz available for you right now. I hope that this car will be okay." I indicated the Toyota that had just pulled up.

Dan regarded the car evenly.

"That's okay," he said, sliding into the front passenger seat. "I doubt it will change the course of human events."

Tom the panic-stricken Sycophant climbed in the back. They drove off, and I went back inside. My pulse rate returned to normal.

Mr. Rather seemed slightly surprised, but composed. I'm guessing he didn't get shoe-horned into a compact Japanese car very often. I had fucked up, no question. But it hadn't been the end of the world after all. Although after that, I made damned sure I never again let both of the Mercedes leave if Dan was still in the building.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

China Stories Pt. 25: Live from Tiananmen Square

We assembled in the cool darkness just outside the hotel entrance at 2 or 3am. Inside, the hotel staff changed the carpets in the elevator and polished the marble floors and brass fixtures. Then we loaded up and headed to the square, a convoy of a half dozen cars and vans full of equipment and people.

We pulled up to the steps of the Museum of the People's Revolution, set up, and then, as the sun came up behind us, Dan Rather was beamed into American living rooms. (Especially living rooms in the not-so-coveted 45-54 demographic.) Then around 6 or so, we broke everything down, and headed back to the hotel. Back into the little island of quiet and order. Time enough to shower and have breakfast. Then it was time to go back to work.

I'm not sure how many times we did the broadcast from the Museum. Rather also anchored evening news broadcasts from the Tiananmen gate itself.

This was all by prior arrangement with government authorities, of course - it had been set up for Gorbachev's visit. Later, when the demonstrations were in full force, we just parked a flatbed truck in the northeast corner of the square and broadcast from there. By that point, students controlled access to the square, so we had to get their permission to enter the square. The students even issued press credentials and vehicle passes. And not just one group - there were multiple groups of students controlling access at different points. I don't know if they appreciated the irony. ("Down with bureaucracy! Can I see your papers?")

I held no job of any consequence in this undertaking – at one point, I may have held a sun reflector during the broadcast, but that was the extent of the excitement for me. My main role was to keep onlookers a reasonable distance back from the broadcast. I stood there with the students watching what was going on. "Where are you from?" they would ask. "America, CBS News," I'd reply. "Oh, good." They didn't know CBS, really, or Dan Rather, but they were happy to have the international press covering the demonstrations.

I was very cognizant of the fact that I was working for the media, and so therefore had some obligation to be objective. (Such a quaint notion!) I was also very aware that I was a guest in China, and I was engaging in activities inconsistent with my visa status. This meant that in theory, I could have been kicked out of the country at any time. Since I intended to have a longer term involvement with China, getting expelled would have been a bad idea.

I felt that I had no active role to play in this. I was a foreigner. I didn't have any skin in the game. I was especially sensitive to this point - I wasn't so presumptuous as to think that I was in any way an active participant in these events. I was there to help tell the story, and most of the students were very happy to have us there.

I'm glad I recognized that I didn't have anything like the same stake in events that the Chinese students had. But in hindsight, I wish I had been a little bit more expressive. I wish I had let the students know how much I supported them, and hoped for them and for their cause. I think they knew. (This was way back in the good old days when the US was considered a beacon of free speech and civil rights.) But I would have felt better if I had expressed myself more.

China Stories Pt. 24: The Shangri-La

Did you see the movie "Lost in Translation?" Even though the movie was set in Tokyo, the hotel reminded me a great deal of the hotel where CBS was encamped. Watching the movie I heard the "ding" of the elevator, and I was transported right back to the Shangri-La on Zizhuyuan Road.

The large marble floor was constantly in varying stages of being cleaned and polished, as was all of the brass. There was a large atrium where coffee and tea were served; in the afternoons, a string quartet played. There was a coffee shop, with a breakfast buffet including an omelet station. There was a steakhouse restaurant. There was a fancy Chinese restaurant that served Cantonese food. There was, in the basement, an Italian restaurant called Peppino's. There was a little store that sold Tylenol, Colgate, Scope, candy, magazines, newspapers. There was a gift gallery that sold... mostly overpriced crap, but hey, that's what some people want to take home from China, and it doesn't seem overpriced to them, so God bless them.

The staff dressed immaculately in black and white uniforms, except for maintenance people who wore overalls, or security people who wore suits and had radios.

The elevators were gleaming. The carpets showed the day of the week in English and Chinese.

The rooms were fairly nondescript, but nicely appointed – a big king size bed (or two); a desk and a dresser; a minibar stocked with candy bars, nuts, gin, whiskey, scotch, vodka, wine and beer. The bathroom was marble with gold fixtures and fluffy white towels. On the mirror was a small sign informing you that the water was not safe to drink.

In the closet were two terry cloth robes, and two pairs of slippers. There was a safe, and a bag for laundry.

There was a TV that carried local stations, plus CNN international, the Hong Kong stations and a Japanese channel. There were a couple of movie channels as well. I don't believe the hotel received CBS.