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Archive for March, 2008

Mini-bios updated

The About page has been updated with our mini-bios. And since it would be too boring to write our own, we wrote each others’ 😉

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Since I have never been to China before, one of my first tasks when I arrived in Shanghai was, of course, to evaluate China and its people via Shanghai. First of all, always having felt bad about the hostile stereotypes of China and Chinese people that I’ve grown up hearing from older Taiwanese relatives, I was a little surprised when Nan agreed with many of them-louder, ruder, dirtier, unsafe, etc. Many of my first impressions confirmed the milder of the negative stereotypes I’ve heard. People generally sound louder and ruder, as if they’re arguing even though they’re just talking (I realize this is more true for the Shanghainese). There was a different set of social propriety and a lack of service attitude. People said please and thank you less, and service personnel (store attendants, waiters, etc) generally do not have a very professional appearance or attitude.

In many conversations about characteristics and stereotypes of the Chinese through the eyes of the Taiwanese, I found a really interesting asymmetry. While for the Taiwanese, the presence of China always looms strongly in our consciousness, the presence of Taiwan seems insignificant in the minds of most Chinese people. When I asked Nan what stereotypes of Taiwanese people her Chinese friends and family have, she answered, “Sorry, we just don’t talk much about you guys.”

My various first impressions of China (via Shanghai) can be summed up by this: the close juxtaposition of disparate qualities. Initially, around the suburb area where we stayed, I was often jolted by the inconsistency between a face etched with exhaustion and years of hardship while their clothes were young and modern. Other times, I was taken aback by the dinginess of the clothing that people wore into public. Oral health and skin care were dreadfully lacking, adding to the general lack of attractiveness. Many people’s teeth were crooked, stained, with gums that have receded to reveal part of the tooth root. Many people, especially the older generation, looked like peasants who had been sloppily transplanted into a metropolis. These negative impressions of how Chinese people look were quickly modified as I ventured into the tourist attractions and upscale shopping areas of Shanghai, such as Xintiandi, where Nan and I battled with giant chess pieces.

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In such places, people dressed better and looked better, and foreigners abounded. In comparison, my plain, solid-colored American clothes looked dingy and sloppy. At Nanjing Lu, one of the most visited tourist shopping streets, we were wowed by the delectable displays at a fancy Haagen Dazs store. We were also tickled to find that apparently you can sell ice cream with sex ;).

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While all big cities will inevitably have areas of affluence and poverty and everything in between, I perceived more immediate intersections between these different qualities in Shanghai than I had seen elsewhere (of course, this conclusion is based on my limited experiences). For example, even in the upscale, touristy places, you can still catches glimpses of backwardness. In a bookstore on Nanjing Lu, there was a lot of obviously pirated multimedia. Amusingly, I saw an elementary school workbook sporting a cover picture of Card Captor Sakura (Japanese comic character created by CLAMP), but a Chinese name was listed after “cover design.” This juxtaposition of disparities was echoed again when we rode the train out from Shanghai to our next stop, Zhengzhou. A mere five minutes out from the forests of glistening skyscrapers in Shanghai, the scenery out the window changed quickly to scenes of poverty. I saw many clumps of huts or small boats seemingly put together with wooden boards, tattered rags, and garbage bags.

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I can only guess that perhaps the drastic (and very impressive) changes that China has undergone in the past 30 or so years have left many people struggling the wake of rapid expansion and modernization. Some live in poverty in the outskirts of, and even inside, the modern city. Some learn to grow old in a city after life in the countryside, like the elderly passengers on the subway whose physical appearance look like farmers, yet they wear badly-fitted suits. Others take advantage of the gaps and loopholes left open by rapid modernization to make a living, such as by piracy. It’s easy to judge China based solely on its vices we hear in the news-rampant piracy, economic disparity, pollution-but one must evaluate the vices with acknowledgment of how far it has come. The question now is, would China be able to mend these gaps left open by its rapid growth? Would ALL of its people be able to adjust to and benefit from its rapid changes?

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If anyone asked me what Shanghai was like when I visited before, my 12-year old version would immediately make a face and say it was very dirty, smelly and was always cloudy. Shanghai is still very much like that, but the first impressions aren’t that simple anymore, especially when one has to try to live there for a bit of time.

The easy bits: Shanghai is always changing with more high rises, more KFCs, more Chinese-speaking foreigners, people are louder than before and the list goes on. The harder bits to see are the slow change of social institutions and environment — poorly-constructed healthcare system, few allowed-NGOs, the gaping disparity of wealth, the extremely competitive and sometimes madly-insane educational system, etc. Just a preview of the stuff that we’ll touch on in later posts.

On the day-to-day stuff, a lot of what I consider simple things in the US were a hassle in China. During our first week in Shanghai, we had to get a cell phone (so that our parents could bother us at their pleasure) and open a bank account (so that we can spend money like the girls we are). Luckily, my Shanghainese cousin accompanied us which meant that we got slightly better treatment than we would have had otherwise. Although we’ve met a lot of nice Shanghainese people, I felt that in terms of the service industry, it’s better to speak Shanghainese so that people know that you’re 1) native Shanghainese and 2) by extension, won’t tolerate any crap.

Anyways, in terms of China cell phone plans – most people pay as they go. However, we were going to be traveling all over China which meant we’d have to change our SIM card (and hence our telephone number) everywhere that we went. The service agent wasn’t helpful, and her attitude bordered on apathy. So it was a frustrating experience as we realized that we had to sign up for the China-world plan which meant paying much more than the first plan, but it allowed us flexibility in that we didn’t have to change cell phone numbers constantly (and this turned out to be a really good idea). The fun part was that we got to choose our cell phone numbers. If you want a cell phone number with the number eight, or six, it costs more. I think in the Szechuan region, the number of 8888-8888 sold to a business costed upwards of 200,000 kuai.

Opening a bank account was easier: fill out a form, deposit money, and remember to always bring your passport! However, one always must keep in mind that there are crazy lines everywhere, and that day was no exception. We waited thirty minutes, which wasn’t bad at all considering the long wait times that we had for other things in China.

So, in summary, first week in Shanghai went relatively well. It was a good adjustment week given that we were going to be staying here for a minimum of 4 months in China. Of course, our stomachs rebelled (especially mine), but in general, we got what needed to be done done and even got to tour some of Shanghai’s famous haunts plus treat our stomachs to some excellent and cheap food…

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What were we going to do and what were we trying to accomplish? We started tackling this idea in early February. Neither of us knew much about traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), much less Shaolin medicine. Both of us had experience with family members using it, but beyond some general ideas, I didn’t really know anything about it. The easiest thing to do when confused is bother nice people. We had a few mentors, including our professor of sociology and, of course, the people who were coordinating this project, that is, Master YL and Dr. SP. We picked the brains of such professors, aka their books, including the Patients and Healers book better known as the “green book that neither of us really finished”.

Lots of meetings, missed deadlines, and cups of coffee later, we narrowed down our general idea of researching TCM from an anthropological point of view to specifically understanding the process in which patients make their decisions in selecting health care, the nature of patient-healer relationships, and perhaps a comparison with Western medicine.* Next was the the issue of money. We both applied for fellowships with a different perspective of what we wanted. Li-Wen wanted to stay in China for about 4 months but then had to come back to the US for several months to do medical school interviews while I intended to stay for one year. After this issue was resolved in mid April, it was back to the drawing board.

Before school ended, our drawing board of logistics looked like a five-year old with ADD had gone through it**. Our formal hosts for this project was the city government of Dengfeng and Mayor B with YL as our middle person. We called the Shaolin contacts to ask them questions regarding their background and get a feel for what they thought of our project. Due to language barriers, differences in expectations, and added to that, a lack of experience in negotiating with our sponsors, we didn’t really feel that we got what we wanted from our sponsors, that is a clear idea of what they could provide in terms of logistics and support. After we graduated in June***, both of us went back to our respective states and began planning more of the logistics. As mentioned before, we still weren’t sure what our hosts were providing in terms of lodging and transportation. We also both did more background research into TCM to try to get a grasp of what we were getting into.

Despite our long-distance practically-email relationship, I think it went well between the two of us in terms of coordinating things to ask and such in the 1.5 months that we had. We also kept in steady communications with YL who acted as a middle man in most of these exchanges. However, it didn’t work so well across the ocean, as I think that in retrospct, our sponsors were just as unprepared for this first exchange as we were. Our planned time of four**** months in Dengfeng got rapidly shortened to three weeks a couple of weeks before we were set to leave in mid July. To end a short this-is-a-long-story, during the conversations with our hosts, our unanswered questions about basic logistics and our mothers’ increasing concerns as a result of that made both sides realize that our expectations were higher than our hosts were prepared to handle. Somehow, by this time, the date for our departure had arrived. We were ready to go and we remained optimistic and hoped that things would work out once we got to Dengfeng, China.

* Understatement #1 – as Li-Wen frankly puts it, “what a condensation of the crap we waded through!”
** Understatement #2
*** We graduated? No way!
**** Thanks to Li-Wen for pointing this out. I’d already forgotten that it started out as four months.

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How it all started

One afternoon in the fall of 2006, I caught the number one bus at the Boston Medical Center and headed back to Harvard like I do every week after volunteering at the Family Help Desk. I had an old manual camera in my messenger bag and was ready to snap some pictures of people waiting at bus stops for my photography project. Before I began my quest of capturing interesting scenes and people on the bus ride home, I caught sight of Dr. SP on the bus. Dr. SP was the mentor for the Family Help Desk and well-loved by students for his knack for offering concrete advice and inspiring enlightening insight. Sitting down next to him, I started catching up with him, and as often happened in conversations with college seniors, he asked me about my plans for the next year. Truth be told, while I knew for sure I wanted to take a year off before heading to medical school, I was not entirely sure what I wanted to do during that year off.”I want to do something different from what I have been doing thus far, something I will most likely not get a chance to do in the future. I’m thinking of going abroad,” I said. Having always wanted to go abroad, I never got around to doing it with the difficulty of fulfilling my premed and neurobiology course requirements.

“What kind of things abroad?” Dr. SP seemed to perk up with sudden interest.

“Maybe some medical volunteering in a Spanish-speaking country, so I can practice my Spanish.”

Then came one of those enlightening moments that Dr. SP seemed to easily pull out of the air.

“What about going to China and doing some kind of study on traditional Chinese medicine? I think you would benefit from this kind of project just as much, if not more so, then going to a Spanish-speaking country.”

His suggestion caught me off guard. I think the possibility never entered my head before because I was subconsciously discouraged by the “softness” of such a project and the disapproval it may inspire from some members of the medical establishment. But when Dr. SP voiced it out loud, it seemed so right. Of course! Coming from a Taiwanese family that has frequently made use of traditional Chinese medicine, on my way to seeking a degree in western medicine, what better project could I undertake during a year in which I seek to develop and understand myself? I grew up accustomed to members of my family, including myself, seeking out traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) doctors for various ailments. My feelings about TCM fluctuated. Sometimes I felt awe at the wonders it seems to work and respect for its dedication to treating the whole of the individual holistically, one quality that western medicine has been repeatedly criticized for lacking. Other times I felt uncertainty and even disdain at its unscientific explanations for illnesses. The very inner conflicts I had about TCM, especially in relation to western medicine, were reasons enough to pursue such a project. Perhaps it would be personally fortifying for me to reconcile these conflicting sentiments before plunging headlong into western medicine.

Forgetting my quest for taking pictures on the bus, I listened intently as Dr. SP went on to explain how he and the taichi master YL have a connection with some people in China who might be very interested in such an exchange. They have been communicating with the city of Dengfeng in Henan, China, which is home to the Shaolin Temple. The folks at the Shaolin Temple and Dengfeng are very interested in introducing their cultural richness to people at Harvard and the US, and people from the Harvard side would love the opportunity to engage in a cultural exchange. Several Harvard students, mostly members of the taichi club, had visited Dengfeng and the Shaolin Temple for short periods previously and really enjoyed the trip. The exchange and connection, however, was still in its preliminary stages, and I would need to talk to Master YL to explore possibilities for my role in this exchange. Ideally, I hoped I could go as a member of this cultural exchange to explore TCM and Shaolin medicine, the Shaolin Temple’s own brand of TCM, and bring such knowledge and experience back to students at Harvard.

After my first round of emails with Master YL, I was intrigued. With an aura of Yoda-like wisdom, did YL speak. And the playful interchange between YL and Dr. SP demonstrated their friendship and their common enthusiasm about the potential of this exchange. I could tell that there was a lot of heart, hard work, and hope behind this project.

Soon thereafter, I realized that if I wanted to make a long term trip to China, it wouldn’t be quite safe or fun to do it by myself. So I started plotting which poor innocent souls I could drag into this uncertain journey with me. One chilly December afternoon, as I was walking outside of Kirkland, I ran into Nan, and we started talking about plans for next year. Lo and behold, Nan also was a little uncertain about her plans and seemed open to the idea of taking a year off before med school. Calling on all skills of persuasion I had, I tried to talk her into making this trip with me. In all my enthusiasm and desperation, I still tried (I hope) to accurately convey to her the amorphousness and uncertainty of this whole plan since it would be the first of its kind. Luckily, the trip piqued her interest, and we agreed to keep in touch about how to solidify our goals and arranged to meet with Master YL and Dr. SP to discuss further plans.

 

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