An afternoon in ‘China’
That’s Bing Frazier in the center of the group. Bing, in the light blue sweater, is flanked on both sides by the group of Chinese physicians and nurses who recently visited Loma Linda University Medical Center as guests of a mentorship program designed to provide an opportunity for health care professionals from other countries to gain valuable first-hand exposure to American medical procedures and technology. Left to right: Jessie, Zoe, Jean, Ringdy, Bing, May, Lee, and Charlie.
I was hard at work the other day when Bing Frazier, program coordinator for the office of international affairs, asked me to come to her office and meet seven Chinese health care professionals involved in an eight-week mentorship program at Loma Linda University Medical Center.
The program, she explained, is a project of Loma Linda University Adventist Health Sciences Center and it’s designed to foster international cooperation.
That sounded intriguing. “Hmmm,” I thought. “International cooperation sounds like a good thing.” I’ve always been in favor of world peace—it seems so much more desireable than the alternative—so I hung up the phone and headed to Bing’s office.
When I arrived, I was enthusiastically greeted by a group of seven doctors and nurses from Zhejiang University Children’s Hospital and Sir Run Run Shaw Hospital in eastern China. Since my Chinese pronunciation is pathetic, I asked each member of the group to write his or her Chinese name, American nickname, occupation, and place of employment on my note pad.
When they handed the pad back, this is what I learned: Wu Wei, who goes by “May” when speaking to Westerners, and Li Zhongyue, known as “Lee,” are pediatricians at Zhejiang University. Zhan Jin, a hematologist at Sir Run Run Shaw Hospital, chose “Jean” for her American name; while Weiling Hu, a gastroenterologist from Sir Run Run Shaw, selected “Ringdy” for her choice. Mei Fang Xu, who likes to be called “Zoe,” is a nurse manager at Sir Run Run Shaw. Lai Can—also known as “Charlie”—is a radiologist from Children’s Hospital, while Wang Yajuan, the nurse director of central service at Sir Run Run Shaw, prefers the nickname “Jessie.”
I told them to call me “Jim.” And they did; at least for the first five minutes. But once they saw my business card, with “James Ponder” listed as my name, I instantly became “James Bond.” As in 007.
“We got to meet James Bond in America!” Jessie exclaimed.
“How much longer will you be here?” I asked, hoping to change the subject.
“They leave for China in the morning,” Bing replied. “Today’s their final day in America.”
That made it seem urgent. I decided to cut to the chase. “What has been the biggest benefit of participating in the mentorship program at Loma Linda?” I asked.
“Seeing how medicine is different here than in China,” Lee replied.
“Seeing and treating diseases we don’t have in China,” Jean offered, citing Beckwith-Weidemann syndrome and Charge syndrome as examples.
“I enjoyed studying cystic fibrosis, celiac disease, eosinophiloc esophagitis, and gastrostomy in children,” Ringdy shared. “We don’t see those diseases in China.”
“Our patient examinations are more physical,” Jean explained. “We don’t have so much technology as here, so we talk to our patients more to diagnose illness.”
“This program is very good,” Charlie offered. “Very systematic.”
“I’ve learned a lot!” Zoe agreed.
After those brief appraisals of the scientific value of the mentorship program, I decided to transition into the social and personal arenas. “What do you think of American food?” I asked.
“Very sweet,” May responded. “Many people in America are overweight. More than in China.”
“Too much fried food,” Jessie added. “We all gained weight here.” Groans of assent swept the room. Some had gained 10 pounds; others said it was only four or five.
“Not me,” Lee beamed, patting his stomach. “I lost 10 pounds!” He gave his belly another appreciative pat, then revealed his secret; unlike the others, Lee hadn’t eaten dessert on the whole trip.
When I asked what they liked most about America, the consensus seemed to favor the weather in Southern California as their first choice, followed closely by the people. “We love the sunshine,” I heard from multiple sources, and “Americans are very kind!”
“Tell me about your families,” I asked. “How many children do you have?”
“Eleven daughters!” Charlie responded.
“Eleven daughters?” Jean scoffed. “You only have ONE daughter!”
“One daughter,” Charlie blushed. “Eleven months old.”
Sensing his embarrassment, May jumped into the discussion. “I’m the only one who doesn’t have children,” she declared. “I’ve only been married five months, and I’ve been here two months without my husband. It’s like being on a very long honeymoon by myself!”
Thanks to May’s candor, Charlie was off the hook and I could switch gears. “What do you miss the most about China?” I asked.
“Our families!” several voices responded.
“Friends and colleagues,” Zoe added.
“Swimming in the pool at home every day,” Lee smiled. “Of course, even without swimming, I still managed to lose 10 pounds!”
Ringdy rolled her eyeballs in a way that communicates, “Oh, brother!” with equal eloquence in English and Chinese, then said she misses Chinese food more than anything else.
“Any food in particular?” I asked.
“Bamboo shoots!” she replied. “We haven’t had bamboo shoots for two months!”
“What kind of music do you like?” I asked.
“Classical music,” Lee answered.
“Who’s your favorite composer?” I queried. “Mozart, Beethoven, Bach?”
Apparently, Lee wasn’t as aware of Western composers as his newly slenderized mid-section. “He means Chinese classical music,” someone explained.
Zoe admitted that she likes Western pop star Celine Dion. Others admitted a fondness for both kinds of classical music—Western and Chinese.
“What did you do in your spare time here in America?” I asked. “Go shopping?”
As it turned out, that’s exactly what they had done. Some of the group said they bought books, others shopped for T-shirts and watches. Jessie confessed a passion for chocolate, while Charlie had kept busy finding gifts for his daughter. Jean admitted, with a very sly grin, to buying several pairs of shoes. “All made in China,” she observed.
“How many pairs did you buy?” I asked.
“Five,” she replied.
At the mention of shoes, everyone looked to Zoe. “She bought seven pairs!” May exclaimed.
I tried to think of something to get Zoe off the hot seat. “What’s the most valuable thing you’ll take back to China from the mentorship program?” I asked.
“Pictures and materials from the lectures we heard,” someone noted.
“Information to share with our colleagues,” Zoe ventured, still blushing slightly from the shoe caper.
“Materials from the G.I. lab,” Ringdy noted.
“Learning about stem cells,” Jean said. “And watching a liver transplant for a cirrhosis patient.”
“Learning about information systems,” Jessie noted.
“Radiologic technology,” Charlie said. “Seeing different cases and their treatments.”
I looked at the clock. It was nearly noon. “So you’re flying back to China in the morning,” I noted, “but what are you doing the rest of today?”
“Nothing,” they replied.
“Then how about letting me take you to Oak Glen this afternoon for apple pie?”
“What’s Oak Glen?” somebody wanted to know. I explained that Oak Glen is a mountain village where they raise apples and make great pies and other delicacies. Everyone thought that sounded fine.
“How noble,” I thought. “These Chinese health care professionals may complain about too much sugar in the American diet, yet they’re willing to sacrifice their own health for the sake of international cooperation. What a diplomatic bunch!”
After shaking hands with one and all, I hurried to the office to e-mail my boss about my plans for the rest of the day. “It’s all in the name of international cooperation,” I assured her, “Especially the pie!” Then I called Rolinda “Ro” Luevano at University relations to arrange a van for the trip.
On the way to Ro’s office, I noted the day was sunny and warm. Even so, I decided to ask Ro just to be sure. I’ve often suspected she’s a secret agent working undercover for the National Weather Service. When it comes to weather, she never misses. Ro always gets it right!
“I predict great weather for your trip,” Rolinda announced as I reached for the keys.
“Cool!” I replied.
“Yes,” she corrected, “but not too cool.” I knew it was useless to try to extricate myself from her play on words with an explanation, so I said goodbye and headed to the van.
Once inside, I maneuvered the vehicle to the traffic circle at the front entrance to the Medical Center. Four of the seven were already waiting for me and two more were hurrying up the walk.
“Where’s Zoe?” I asked.
“Not coming,” they said. “She stayed behind to say goodbye to friends.”
I had to admire her loyalty. How many people would willingly forego the pleasure of eating apple pie in Oak Glen to bid farewell to their buddies? Zoe was really serious about international cooperation! She was like a one-woman United Nations.
Unfortunately, the truth sank in a moment later. “Zoe’s friends likely have cars,” I reasoned. “There are scads of shoe stores nearby in San Bernardino and Redlands. Zoe and her party can grab a bite of pie at any of a dozen restaurants in the community once she finishes her last, mad shoe-shopping hurrah.”
“Zoe’s shopping for shoes!” I blurted out.
Stifled laughter filled the van, but nobody tattled on their errant companion.
“Oh, well,” I said. “I hope she has a good time! We certainly are.”
A few miles up the road, the sign for Yucaipa Boulevard came into view. “Want to see the house where I lived as a boy?” I asked. “It’s just a little bit out of our way.”
“Yes!” Jessie enthused. “Let’s see the house where James Bond grew up!”
We drove past the cream-colored house on the hill. The grass was brown, the trees I used to climb looked drawn and gaunt and dry. The place reeked of neglect. “It wasn’t always like this,” I said.
The only reply I heard was the snapping of camera shutters as six health care professionals from the People’s Republic of China took snapshots of James Bond’s childhood hangout for the folks back home.
We turned left at Bryant Street and drove along the foothills to Oak Glen Road, then made a sharp right and started up the hill. It may only be four miles from there to Law’s Oak Glen Coffee Shop, but it feels much longer. For one thing, it’s a fairly steep grade. For another, it’s a trek across several ecological zones as rolling chaparral gives way to sharp, granitic mountains.
Another minute up the road and fall color kicked in with a passion. An orange, red, and yellow passion to be precise! Everything from apple trees and weeds to California sycamores, deciduous oaks, poplars, and cottonwoods were making brilliant statements of colorful mortality against the deepest blue sky.
“This looks like western China,” Charlie suddenly announced.
As he extolled the many similarities between the two regions, a longing found expression from somewhere inside my soul. Maybe it was because the colors of this gilded day reminded me of the misty autumn scenes depicted in Chinese landscape paintings. Whatever it was, I felt it was useless to try and hold back. “I’d love to visit China,” I finally said.
“Yes, you must!” a chorus of voices exploded. “We’ll show you all around China.”
As we turned a corner, a whimsical road sign presented a comedic opportunity too good to miss. “They grow lots of apples around here,” I said, nodding towards the billboard. “Some of them get REALLY big! That one’s five feet tall!”
The van erupted with groans, but everybody grabbed their cameras and snapped away just the same. “We don’t grow apples like that in China!” somebody said.
Once we parked the van and strode through the upper story balcony entrance at Law’s, the waitress told us to wait in the foyer while she cleared a table large enough to accommodate us all.
May sidled over with a mischievous grin. “Look!” she said, pointing to the back of her digital camera. It contained an image from a postcard depicting two rednecks slicing a huge apple with a crosscut saw.
Once our pie finally arrived, May was the only one who didn’t immediately dig in. Instead, she took out her camera and composed a picture of the flaky pastry. Somehow, that struck my funny bone. I’ve seen lots of people eat pie, but May was the first one who took a picture of it first. She doubtless only wanted to show it to the folks back home, but I could hardly keep a straight face. I hid behind my camera and stole a picture of May picturing her pie.
“I like apple pie!” Lee suddenly announced. “We don’t have apple pie in China.”
“I’m glad you like it, Lee,” I said, softening to the realization of my own weakness for apple pie. “How did everybody else like apple pie?”
The response was instantaneous. “Very much!” replied the majority. Others could only nod in agreement; their mouths were too full to say a word. Within five minutes, the only reminders of the tasty, American icon were empty plates and satisfied smiles on seven faces.
We returned to the van, then drove down the hill to Moms. Not my mom’s, she doesn’t live in Oak Glen. Our destination was Moms Country Orchards, the roadside fruit stand, gift shop, and homespun stomping grounds of Oak Glen’s philosopher-at-large, Alison Law-Mathisen.
Alison regaled us with tales of hungry bears that come down from the hills to feast on the bounty of her orchards. “The bears got more than 4,000 bushels of apples this season,” she informed us.
As we imagined fat little bears belching cider after their pre-
hibernatory feast, I glanced at the time and realized we needed to head down the hill. “All aboard!” I shouted.
On the drive home, I unexpectedly felt like singing. “Do you guys like the blues?” I asked.
They assured me they did, so I cut loose with my best Howlin’ Wolf impersonation and belted out a song called “Mississippi” with passion and pain, just as the blues should ever be sung.
When I finished, the group broke into wild applause. Then Jean said they would sing for me.
Sweetly and with a touch of shyness, my own private choir filled the van with a folk melody sung in the five-toned pentatonic scale so common to non-Western musical traditions. When they finished, I applauded heartily and asked what the song was about.
“It’s a love song,” Jessie replied. For the next 10 minutes, “the hits just kept on coming,” as they say on the radio. Without exception, every single song turned out to be a love song of one form or another. It didn’t take James Bond or Sherlock Holmes to tell me that my new friends were homesick for the land and people they left behind.
Nobody said much as the last song came to an end. Least of all me; I was too lost in my thoughts. A wave of unexpected melancholy rolled over me: Goodness, I was going to miss these people! My friends were lost in something, too. They stared quietly outside the van, absorbing their final hours in America.
All too soon, we pulled to the front of the Medical Center and my Chinese pals were saying goodbye. “We had a wonderful time!” Charlie declared. “Yes,” the others agreed, “a wonderful time!”
After thanking me for making their last day in the United States so memorable, Jessie told me, “Now it’s your turn. Come to China and visit us!” As the last passenger climbed out, I vowed that I would.
I watched my new friends walk away for a moment, then steered back towards University relations. The van seemed way too quiet. I missed my new friends! Would I ever see them again? I knew that I must.
As I turned into the parking lot, I suddenly thanked God for the privilege of working in a place where ideological and political barriers melt before a powerful institutional commitment to making humanity whole. “I’ve been made whole this afternoon,” I whispered under my breath.
By James Ponder