Each evening I walk for an hour or two, and sometimes one of the students tags along. This is wonderful, since she can bring meaning to the blur of Chinese street life around us. Yesterday, she pointed out a tragedy that I would have walked right past:
Opposite the railway college where I teach is a hospital. In fact there are eight hospitals within four blocks. That is room for a lot of pain, and one block away is street which the college students consciously avoid. It is a drab street with some dusty trees, and those nondescript buildings of grey crumbling concrete which define the back streets of Chinese cities all over the country. Those who do call into this street come reluctantly and avoid returns, for the business here is the trinkets of death: coffins, garlands, and the general clutter of items that go with funerals. The hospitals offer a steady trade.
The hospital opposite the railway college though is for maternities and pediatrics, hope coming into the world. Accordingly, the street around the college has many small shops selling gift baskets of fuit, eggs, and expensive looking boxes covered in shiny red and gold paper. China has a gift giving culture. Along with the gift shops, there are chemists, and outlets for baby clothing, tinned baby food, powdered milk, strollers and so on. There are also restaurants, perhaps for the expectant fathers, and always one or two men holding down huge bunches of multicoloured balloons. Towards one end of the street you can find a whole collection of ragged garage shops selling toilet paper. It is amazing what some people make a living out of. The hospital itself has a high fence of ornate iron pickets, behind and over which graze a small herd of concrete giraffes. Clearly these poor giraffes became lost on a trek from Africa and were turned to concrete by ingesting the meciless dust covered diet of central China’s trees.
Yesterday, along with the concrete giraffes, the entrance to the hospital had some protesters. Today they are gone, disappeared, as things happen here. A small collection of tearful family members, the distraught mother, the grandmother, the shattered father waited beside their wall poster of red characters roughly tied to the iron railing. They had a child the poster said, an infant. They were poor people, but the doctor had told them their child needed to have an operation, the sooner the better. Somehow they raised the money, and on the day of the operation waited patiently in the corridor as their infant was taken away. Four hours later they were still waiting, and no word had come back from the operating theatre. At last, consumed with worry, the father had forced his way into the theatre. The place was deserted. More hours, more evasions; somebody told them to go home. At last a reluctant official broke the news that the doctor and the baby had vanished. Now, a week later, no trace could be found of either, the hospital claimed. Had the doctor killed the baby and gone into hiding? Patients die often enough in hospitals. Was there gross negligence? Was the baby sold? Human trafficking is common. Was the hospital complicit in some ghastly body parts racket? Stuff happens. They are poor people. No official is ever going to tell them. This is central China.