There is a famous Chinese proverb: 不到长城非好汉. He who has never been to the Great Wall is not a true man. And after he visits the Great Wall, he picks up a pack of cigarettes. 

Smoking is huge in this country, even with doctors, including my “no chicken, no OJ, drink broccoli juice” acupuncturist.

Before the young doctor light his cigarette, he stuck FORTY -TWO – I kid you not- needles in my butt. Yes, I counted. Forty-ouching-two, several of which he connected to jumper cables, reminding me of 007 movies and Chicago Police of the nineties.

But my doctor wasn’t Jon Burge, just another Chinese doctor puffing a Chunghwa as I wanted to bite on a leather strap or whatever tough guys do in movies.

But this time, the Marlboro Man’s needles didn’t do the trick. He flashed me the QR code on his phone, the universal greeting in China. It’s befriending someone on WeChat. This magic app allows you to pay bills, order cabs, instantly translate messages and be socially traced by several departments of the Chinese government while you video chat your friends. You gotta love it!

Along with exercise videos, the smoking doctor sent me something I wasn’t expecting: a map to a Chinese public hospital and a reservation the next morning with an orthopedic specialist.

He clicked the voice translator button: “CT scan. Tomorrow.”

Didn’t I have a say in this?

My mind flashed back to my appointment with the western doctor a few weeks back, the doctor who didn’t smoke or poke 42 needles in my butt or have to use a phone to communicate. He insisted my numbness was due to post traumatic quarantine disorder. 

Stress? What kind of stress can you have living in a foreign country?


On Monday, I got notified that my ATM card got stolen in America, which lead to middle-of-the-night calls to my bank in Chicago, which disturbed the man who lives below me in Kunming. That was followed by a fire on Hump Day. Yes, a real fire. The smell of smoke woke me up and just like what they tell you not to do in educational videos, I opened the hallway door. My neighbor quickly discovered that a hysterical Měi guó rén pounding on a door is one heck of a fire alarm. While coughing on the smoke, I pointed towards the glass case that read, fire exting uisher.

My neighbor noticed smoke was seeping up the stairwell from the floor below, from the grouchy man who complained about my noise. His trash was smoldering, being a mix of cigarette butts, durian pits, and nibbled pig ear bits.

But back to my numbness: is it my nerves or my nerves?

I would soon find out at a Chinese public hospital, which isn’t much different than Chicago’s Cook County hospital. Chaos, people screaming into cell phones and long lines. 

However, there is one key difference. You can register the same way you do at O’hare, at an easy-to-use kiosk.

There are also two pharmacies: one with traditional Chinese medicine that is measured out on balances, and one with boxes and name brands and possible side effects.

Sue, my human translator and friend, helped me with the process and showed me how to elbow my way into the doctor’s small office. He was a Chinese Traditional Medicine Orthopedic Specialist and had the credentials of a fine Chinese doctor on his desk.  A brown filter, yet.

I was lead into an examination room that hadn’t been decorated since before cigarettes had warning labels. No inspirational posters, just mattresses thinner than a yoga mat. After moving my legs around like a Twist-and-Turn Barbie, the specialist slapped a mud pie on my back.

“No CT,” that was all that I could understand as he shared instructions with my friend. She explained, “You mix the medicine each morning and place it on your back.”

As the nurse handed me a Velcro girdle to keep the mud pies in tact.

The medicine looks like brownie mix, but trust me, it isn’t.

I took a cab home and was confronted with more needles. This time, they were in the hands of the Mad Hatters.

Usually, these colorful ladies in my xiao qu (residential complex) are stitching shoes, but today they were stitching doilies.

They pointed to a stool and invited me to stay, having no clue how sore my rear was. As I tried not to look pained, we tried guessing each other’s ages, the lines on their faces telling stories that I’ll never understand, They laughed at the size of my feet, which were foot-long hotdogs compared to their petite party sausages. 

Definitely too big for their hand-embroidered slippers.

I’ll find out soon enough if the mud pie therapy relieves whatever it is going on in my body. Is it a nerve? Or is it my nerves? Or is it just another joy of midlife, right up there with eyesight so bad, you open a can of cat food instead of tuna fish?

Yes I did. But no, I didn’t eat it. But my eyes are still good enough to enjoy the poppies poppin’ in Kunming, which ya know, if I take the time to smell, sorta nip the stress thing in the bud (Smelling flowers is approved by the Surgeon General, by the way).

My total tab was less than $75 for both doctors’ visits.

That’s enough for the them to buy a carton of cigarettes.

2 thoughts on “Smoke

  1. Ginger, I’m so sorry you are in pain and have been around so much smoke! Hope the mud pack works for you!

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