Saturday, June 26, 2010

Week 3

CCTV, state-sponsored TV station

Temple of Heaven, Beijing

I returned to Jilin on Monday morning at 7:15am after a weekend in Beijing. We took the overnight train-- not a bad way to travel for a 12 hour trip.

If you asked an American to name Chinese tourist attractions, I bet that most of them would be in Beijing—Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall of China, and maybe the Temple of Heaven. The Ming Dynasty’s Imperial Palace, more commonly known as the Forbidden City, is also there. Built in 1420, it has all of the opulence and luxury of Louis XIV’s Versailles, in an entirely Chinese style.

With 17 million residents, it is the largest city that I have visited. From what I have heard, it has transformed in the past 20 years. To prepare for the 2008 Olympics, the government pumped billions of dollars into development and infrastructure. Despite the smog, the city has avoided turning into a concrete jungle by maintaining trees along most major streets, flowered walkways beside canals, and expansive parks for tai chi, martial arts, and the occasional group of elderly polka dancers.

There are many more Westerners in Beijing than in Jilin—mostly tourists and businesspeople trying to get a piece of the excitement and expansive growth in capital city. It’s about as crowded as you would imagine; car owners are only allowed to drive on specified days (which are marked on their license plates). Many of the main streets are divided by small white fences to protect the pedestrians who would otherwise ignore the specified crosswalks.

One of the more bizarre experiences on the train occurred shortly after I boarded my car on Sunday night. To pass the time before climbing up to my third level bunk, I was reading a book (thanks to David Monteith) by a journalist who studied abroad in China as a college student and later returned to the country as a reporter. Just as I was concluding a chapter about a certain government crackdown in 1989, and the journalist’s subsequent arrest and expulsion from the country, the book was pulled from my hands. I looked up to see an unsmiling policeman standing above me, who proceeded to spend several minutes flipping through the pages. Of course, I immediately began envisioning the hours of intense questions and preparing my responses to the authorities—“No, I didn’t buy the book; it was a gift. No, I’m not involved in politics, and I don’t even know anyone in the government.” He closely examined the few pictures, and then pointed to the one white guy on the cover. I then pointed to the name of the author written across the bottom. He never spoke to me in English, so I had no idea whether he could understand anything that he saw or read. Finally, he shoved the book in my hands and walked away.

He probably saw a white girl on the train and was curious, like many of my fellow passengers. Just a few years ago, I would have been considered a threat to the system and the party, but these days, the government spends much less time worrying about the negative influences of 24-year-old American students. The political, social, and economic transformation that has occurred in China over the past 30 years is incredible. Everyone—including the people—are still trying to figure out the good, the bad, and the ugly from these changes. The impact of the most significant factors—from membership in the Party to the one-child policy to state-sponsored media—is not always obvious to Americans who cannot speak the language and who bring very different assumptions about “the way things are.” But, through watching, listening, and talking with my new friends, it has been fascinating to try to understand.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Week 2

I’m sitting on the top floor of the Bo Hua Hospital listening to Korean pop music to prepare for our next trip to KTV (a.k.a. karaoke) with the hospital staff. Karaoke is a big deal here in China. Just in case you are ever invited to KTV, you should know that your group will have its own personal room, complete with microphones, a large flat screen TV, and a smaller touch screen that you can use to can pick your songs and adjust the volume. Don’t worry if you can’t read the Chinese characters—you’ll recognize plenty of artists, from the Backstreet Boys to Michael Jackson to Avril Lavigne. But if you really want to be cool, you’d better brush up on the latest Korean stars. And don’t be surprised if the meekest and mildest members of your group transform with a microphone in their hands. I have never seen anyone sing to the Backstreet Boys as passionately as Dr. Jin, a internal medicine doctor here at the hospital.

When I’m not doing karaoke, attending the Dragon Boat Korean Festival (photo: Korean dancers waiting to perform at the Dragon Boat Festival in Jilin City), or eating some type of cucumber, I am continuing to prepare for the public health plan that I hope to create for the hospital. The health issues facing Jilin City are a little different than the ones in Little Rock. On one hand, many people already do many of the things that doctors, trainers, coaches, public health leaders, and even Ms. Obama with her Let’s Move Campaign, are begging Americans to do. Most eat more than five servings fruits and vegetable and avoid processed foods. Biking and walking are the most common forms of transportation. Along the Songhua River, which runs through the city, there are “playgrounds” for adults, complete with monkey bars, stations for stretching, and my very favorite—something very similar to Tony Little’s “Gazelle” exercise machine (I apologize if you’ve never seen the infomercial, but if you have, you know you’ve wanted to try it. It is as fun as it looks.).

On the other hand, many basic health practices are ignored by the majority of the population. Hand washing, even after doing you know what, is rare. 75% of men, and an increasing number of women, smoke regularly. Calcium deficiency is common, and high levels of sodium cause dangerously high blood pressures.

But, just like in the United States, there are plenty of smart people who know what people should do to live healthier lives. The challenge is turning that knowledge into action—through education, encouragement, empowerment, and policy changes. At this point, I’m focusing on gathering that information, and perhaps providing some models from other countries and other regions that we can use here at Bo Hua to educate the patients.

Jilin City

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Week 1

According to the White Pages, there literally thousands of Johnsons in Little Rock (of a approximate total of 184,000 residents). Johnson is the second most common surname in the United States. In the twenty three months that I have been a Johnson, I have grown accustomed to meeting and working with lots of other Johnsons. To be a Johnson in Little Rock—really, a Johnson anywhere in the United States—basically means that you’ll blend in with the crowd.

But being a Johnson in Jilin is a little different. It implies standing out, not fitting in, especially for a taller than average white girl, who can only count to ten and say “Thank You” and “Hello” in Mandarin. There are lots of Lees and Lius, but I have yet to meet another Johnson, or find someone who can pronounce my first name.
No matter how much time I spend here, my name is not going to change. I’ll always be American-born and bred, and even if I learn to speak like the natives, I’ll never look like a local. But for now, I am here to learn—and to enjoy tofu, squid, pickled cabbage, and rice soup, to stroll along the river at night watching old woman play hacky-sack and teenage boys play badminton, and to hear the stories of the doctors and nurses at the Bo Hua Hospital. I am here to learn what I can bring and give and take in this new place with new tastes, new smells, new faces, and new friends.

Since I arrived on June 9th, I have scrubbed in to watch a few surgeries, visited a traditional medicine clinic in a rural village, watched a teenage girl receive acupuncture, and toured three hospitals. I am trying to take in as much as possible before actually making any recommendations or doing any real work for the hospital here. I am still at the steepest part of the learning and adjustment curve and eagerly anticipating the weeks to come.