These days, I find with increasing assurance that life has a very ironic sense of humor. How else do you find yourself trying your best to make a home in a foreign country for two months, only to find yourself back in the comforts of your actual home again? How else does the distance between Shanghai and Sydney, which seemed like it was worlds away suddenly shrink to a mere ten hours? Ten hours which used to feel so long.
Suffice it to say, I’ve been through quite a rollercoaster of emotions these past few days (literally and figuratively) and although the poetic monologue that has been narrating my days has now retreated into a deep slumber, I will do my best to recall its tender whispers from memory. So, pardon me as I collect my thoughts and try, however futile as it may be, to tell you how my cervical disc herniated while I was on a rollercoaster on the week of my 21st birthday.
It begins as most stories do. On one fine Spring day, as the sun beams with triumph and yesterday’s rain evaporates into nothing but a haunting grey memory. The air is thin and I make sure to pack my sunglasses into my backpack along with other necessities (i.e. boiled sweet corn, almonds, dried dates, my Shanghai metro card and a little bit of red lipstick to keep in theme with my outrageously good mood). We’re going to Happy Valley today.
Happy Valley. Aptly named to sound like a real destination in the land of Far, Far Away, but I can attest to the fact that the place is anything but magical. A theme park located in the SongJiang region of Shanghai, it’s just a little too far from the city hub for comfort and has too many questionable safety hazards for my liking but… I’m in China! What the hell! Away with playing it safe! (Low key: Luna Park is probably not any safer). So, two metros and about an hour later, we arrive at SheShan Metro Station which we all immediately agree upon exiting as a station we would absolutely never venture to use the bathroom at (it most certainly is no Line 12).
As the sun is beaming relentlessly down on our squinting faces, numerous people offer to sell us raincoats that grow progressively cheaper, the closer we get to Happy Valley (eventually it gets down to 5 yuan for 3!). Random guys swaddle up to us offering us rides, which I’m presuming is code for, you are welcome in my big, white van. On our way to the shuttle bus that takes us directly and most conveniently to the theme park, we get molested on a bridge by Monkey King, Minnie Mouse and a bunch of clowns. By the time I throw myself off the speeding shuttle bus, I feel highly accomplished that I’m still alive and standing on steady land. As I lift my gaze, just beyond the massive fountain spouting crystal clear water looms the ominous gateway… and so, the day begins.
Had I known that I would wait in line for almost three hours for a rickety ride named Fireball and come off feeling like fire had literally crawled under my skin, would I have still gone? No way. But unknowing as I was, I rode out the instincts of my nonchalant, careless persona and ended up dragging Juliana from the day’s fun into the very confusing web that is China’s medical system.
In Sydney, we learn to trust our doctors because the system works as its intended to; because health professionals are professionals for a reason. In China, it’s a slightly different story. The minty scent of money filtered into the conversation when my presiding doctor left me to decide on whether I wanted to get an MRI after he said the worst thing that any doctor can possibly say to a patient, ‘I don’t really know what’s wrong…’ and then I didn’t hear the rest. He came by with a brochure that stated my MRI would cost me 11,000 RMB and I may have to wait an hour or so for the insurance to come through so the best bet was to pay for it first.
About an hour or so later, I had to authorize another payment for getting admitted into hospital for further inspection overnight because my spine showed up with some complications. That would cost me10,000 RMB for every night and I would have to stay at least 5 days. I believe at this point my wallet was aching as much as my arms. Later, this pain would transfer onto the insurance company that covered the majority of these payments so rest easy friends.
The point is that somewhere in the world there are doctors who are in this line of business because your life is about as profitable as the number of times you require surgery. It’s probably not so hard to wrap your mind around but when you’re dizzy and nauseous from morphine, steroids and more ambiguous painkillers, try second guessing professional opinion and diagnoses in Chinese.
It wasn’t a pretty night.
I expect it wasn’t a pretty sight back home either. I can only imagine mum picking up the phone at around midnight, still lingering in her slumber and being dragged into a state of panic as my half-informed uncle is blaming her for not fixing my spine before I came to China. Then, for the next however many days before she landed in Shanghai, the worry that she tried to keep from me as we limited ourselves to wechat conversations because she was scared she would cry.
Despite it all though, I was fine. The entire situation was less than ideal because well, obviously nothing was going to plan. My birthday was going to shits (at least I had time to foresee that and to be fair, it ended up being a very grounding, memorable and humbling day which is to say that it ended up being much more than I bargained for), the fate of my exchange was up in the air, insurance was going to be a pain to deal with (when is it not?) and when the hell am I allowed to wash my hair??? The neck collar has to be worn 24 hours a day and because apparently, there’s only one, I’m not allowed to get it wet.
All that aside though, my gratitude for life filled me up with a quiet peacefulness that carried me through countless discussions of surgery in Shanghai, in Hong Kong and the possibilities of going home. I spent my days in a clean, private hospital room with nurses, who became like friends. I appointed the dark blue sofa in my room as my reading chair and spent a few hours before bed there. Everyday doctors came and went. Everyday, the room was graced with the presence of friends and family from near and far. Everyday, I was getting better and stronger.
It’s strange how you can’t always seem to make sense of life the way you would like to but in moments like these, I take comfort in improvising my way through the days. When life gets too serious the only thing you can do is refrain from taking yourself too seriously and perhaps somewhere, later down the road, the universe will reveal itself to you.
Honestly, I still don’t know how I managed to get back home without breaking down incessantly or why the familiar grips of an old friend I know by the name of depression didn’t tackle me into bouts of self-loathing and existential interrogation. Maybe it was the business class flight or the promise of brunch in the land of sunshine back home. Perhaps it was the reassuring sense of friendship I’d managed to secure with my friends in Shanghai – the trust that even if things were to inevitably change, there would still be a place for me when I got back.
And one thing is for sure, I will be back.