For Australians like me, who have misspent their youth bikini-watching on the golden sands of our beaches, who have baked their white skins to a crisp brown in fierce sunshine summer after summer, retribution comes years later in a patchwork of skin spots that can range from the quaint to the downright lethal. Three months ago a gentle Greek-Australian specialist cut a bite-sized chunk out of my back just in case the little brown patch on its crown was about to turn into a raging melanoma. It's a version of cancer which can kill you within months. That one turned out to be still asleep. But it was a nasty reminder last Tuesday to find a new arrival just above my shoulder blade. A slight itch drew my unwilling gaze. Slightly rattled, I asked a friend to image it with my digital camera, and viewing the technicolour enlargement on a computer graphics screen, paranoia struck home. Wuhan, aaargh! A Wuhan doctor might know a good catalogue of the ills that flesh is heir to, but that special fatal combination of white skin and foolish sun-bathing, the melanoma, would at best be a faint reference in some foreign textbook ...
The Waiban (the dogsbody assigned to watch over foreign teachers) had just arrived at work, a crisp, early winter's day. I put my reference chart of skin spots into his lap and suggested we make a bee-line for a skin quack, if such a thing existed in these regions. The poor man is accustomed to the obsessions of "waiguo ren", has learned to humour them until the price becomes too high, so he said to leave it with him for a while. The next afternoon, after the siesta that all civilized people have (that is, all the people who don't work in markets and shops, or drive buses, or beg on the overpasses), we caught the bus down to Wuhan General Hospital of Guangzhou Command.
The "Command" part of its name became clear soon enough. Peeking from beneath the white cotton hospital coats were the crimson and gold stars of the People's Liberation Army. The "Guangzhou" part of it remains a bit of a mystery, a surreptitious infiltration from that place we call Canton, 1000 kilometers or so to the south. The waiban says airily that Wuhan is "just part of Central Southern Command, including Guangzhou". Hm, maybe. But Wuhan and Guangzhou are different cultures, different languages, different countries. Maybe it also has something to do with that old principle of empire of not asking hometown boys to shoot at mum and dad. Hidden from busy Luoyu Road behind a barricade of shops and apartments, the hospital is a pleasant enough place from the outside, and strangely unpopulated on Friday afternoon. A horse-shoe of multistory buildings are fringed by a quiet avenue of trees and a small park. A larger military complex spreads back around the hill. Inside the buildings, the hospital is, well, Chinese-spartan.
Typical Chinese public buildings, whatever their exterior pomp, yield nothing to aesthetic taste on the inside; (the new dental hospital wing is a nice exception). They are, on the whole, concrete caves in which human beings are only grudgingly permitted to encamp. (Come to think of it, Australian public buildings of a generation ago weren't too wonderful either, when it came to homeliness). The teaching rooms that I've known here in universities often run off dank corridors that look and smell like public toilets. The rooms have not been properly cleaned since the day that they were built; scraps of paper litter the floors, blackboards are caked with generations of chalk dust; narrow, ugly benches are bolted to the floor, wall to wall ... Administration offices tend to be bleak concrete shells, cluttered with motley collections of old furniture that belong in a charity auction ... Libraries are run-down warehouses with bare concrete floors, a few metres of steel shelving, tired piles of fading books, chipped window sills painted pale green ...
Anyway, we came to a lady in a white dustcoat who drove the large hospital lift. Her eyes never left her knitting as she took us to the fifth floor. We clattered along some corridors painted pale green to shoulder height, then white, and
found a small room where a couple of other stolid ladies also in white dust coats sat behind old wooden desks. The manner of getting attention here, as in the dental hospital, is to butt straight in on what the doctor or nurse happens to be doing. This doesn't seem to be resented. A doctor will fend off questions from three or four hopefuls as he prods and peers at the current victim.
My waiban, a gangling young man with bad acne, announced our presence to the throng, there was a flurry of attention, and soon I was invited to remove my shirt for general inspection. They looked, and fell into embarrassed silence. The small, uneven brown mark on my shoulder blade was, well, ... did I really come for that? I produced my table of skin spots, and asked the waiban to translate the horrors of melanoma, "pifu ai". There was still a general air of disbelief, but one of the ladies fetched a dusty volume, some sort of medical encyclopaedia (no pictures), and located a name that was subtitled "keratoses" in English. Nope, I said, wrong animal; I've burnt a dozen of those off my flesh myself with electrician's freeze-spray.
Don't worry about it, they said. Go home and forget it. I'd rehearsed this scenario in my imagination, they were acting out their anticipated roles without a hitch. I smiled, gestured to enclose a dramatic silence, sighed. I'll forward a copy of the image to an Australian cancer clinic for advice, I announced. Mm. That was an underhand move. They had a little conference in Putonghua, and a senior doctor-cum-senior military officer suddenly appeared. Please wait, someone said. We will call you in a short time for the operation. The realities had miraculously changed; honour was at stake; (what if, perish the thought, the Australian specialists said the wretched spot was significant...).
Soon a young lady came to fetch me, led me to a tiny room just wide enough for a stretcher and some wall cupboards. I took off my shirt and lay face down on the stretcher. A metal window framed one end of the room, its small squares of glass fringed with dirty, uneven streaks of cream paint; beyond, a chasm between grey building walls. The young lady fished for instruments, wrapped in paper, that were kept in three or four crumpled aluminum boxes on her benchtop. Then she put on some surgical gloves and wiped my back down with alcohol. "No afraid", she reassured me in fractional English. "Mei guanxi", I mumbled in pitiful Chinese. She leaned over me. A gorgeous silver brooch was at her throat, and her hair was luxurious, a rich black brocade tumbling down to her shoulders.
A quick jab of anaesthetic, and a little while later, a dull crunchy sensation of someone snipping away, fibre by fibre with a pair of scissors. "You mei you teng?" she asked several times. "Hen hao" I assured her, taking a punt on what "teng" might mean. I couldn't feel a damn thing. Eventually, I became linguistically adventurous. "Zai Aodalia, you pifu ai, hen duo ren DIE." Heaven knows what that did to Chinese syntax, but she got the drift and was duly impressed. It put a new purpose into her practice exercise of surgery, for I had a sneaking feeling that she hadn't done too much of this. The Australian specialist had made a few quick, practiced strokes and come away with an alarmingly large wedge of flesh. "Got to get all of the bugger", he had explained. After six or seven minutes of snipping, my new Chinese surgeon triumphantly held up a small, bloody tag of skin and flesh. I hope to god it is harmless, or "the rest of the bugger" might be busily multiplying in the substratum..
Soon the excavation was stitched up, and a large pad of cotton taped onto my back. The lady doctor experimented with a bit of baby Chinese, telling me to come back in three days to have the dressing changed, and eight days to have the stitches out. "No wash ban hao", she added. No shower for eight days.. The Australian had slapped some kind of waterproof mask on and told me not to do push ups for a while.. Still, I had nothing to complain about. These people were showing a lot of goodwill, and they had done the best that they knew how. The senior doctor-cum-senior officer waylaid me on the way out for a heart to heart. He'd been doing a bit of quick homework to find some plausible diagnosis. What was the Australian diagnosis, he asked anxiously? Benign, at that time, I admitted, but the specialist himself had said he was never quite sure until the biopsy results came in. The senior doctor looked relieved. He was pretty sure, he murmured, that the snippet they'd souvenired today was some kind of fungus. Well, that did sound plausible. Here's hoping..
Now the waiban took possession of the little bottle containing a piece of Thor May, and we set off to find a pathology department. He'd become very quiet. Maybe it was the Y150 surgery fee, which he hadn't felt able (yet, anyway) to ask me for ... Our search took us across the quadrangle, another building, more dark corridors with old furniture stacked in corners. In one of these branching hallways on an upper floor, a table half-blocked the way. It had no chair, no attendant, but this was evidently the home of pathology. The waiban stuck his head into three or four doorways, tried to corner the odd retreating figure, and eventually persuaded someone to take the bottle and a piece of paper that said a sum of money had duly been paid for their opinion. Come back on Monday, they said. So we will.
[Postscript, Monday: Ah well, I'm not dying after all. Not from the spot anyhow. It was something called seberic dermatitis -- a good case for chucking out anything that looks like a synthetic shirt.. ]