Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Sick Day

I’m angry, in an irrational way, at the germs that are ravaging my body, exotic little bugs that precipitate a sore throat, rashy skin, and an array of gastrointestinal woes. I am vexed at my immune system’s pathetic attempt to battle this scourge of infirmity, and I picture lazy pompous blobs of my own white blood cells surrendering to viruses sharp and cunning as kung fu masters. Short of refusing all food, water, and air for the next six weeks, I am left with no option but to expose myself to these unfamiliar pathogens and hope for the best.

Some days ago, as I was starting on my way to this full-blown viral infection I’ve got going, I took one of the infamous Shanghai cabs out for a quick errand run. Admittedly, I was also nursing a slight hangover from my birthday celebration the night before, which I will write about later on, so after handing the cab driver my little card with the Sheraton Hotel’s address on it, I lay down in the back seat to wallow in my misery (and to avoid witnessing the harrowing traffic). Minutes later I found myself being yelled at and motioned out of the car by the driver, to which I responded with an argumentative “No! I said the SHE-RA-TON!” Out of necessity, I have grown used to arguing my way through the city, but in this case, it seemed there was more to the story than an irate driver… I soon realized, ironically, that I had been driven, headache and all, to the Shanghai General Hospital. As it turns out, my little Sheraton instruction card was double-sided, with the opposite face stating that I was indeed requiring emergency transportation to the nearest hospital! Lots of apologies on both ends (Dubuqi! Dubuqi! Sorry! Sorry!) and I eventually made it back to the hotel.

But as disgruntled as I may be over my illness, I am still shocked and dismayed at the Chinese government’s recent crackdown on its lax and corrupt food and drug administration. In an extreme act of retribution meant to assuage the public’s fears over product contamination and forgery, Zheng Xiaoyu, director of food and drug oversight, was convicted of taking bribes and approving fake pharmaceuticals. He was executed. Now I would like a non-poisonous apple as much as any Snow White, but does the death of one wicked witch necessarily ensure the safety of all dwarves in the forest??? It will take more than this publicity stunt to ameliorate the safety issues that prevail, issues that are all wrapped up in politics, economics, and the push-push-push to get ahead in rapidly developing China.

Sometimes being personally embroiled in a problem serves to drive home the severity of a situation. While in Peru for a World Health Organization project in 2005, I spent a month studying the complex and abysmal food, air, and water conditions in the shantytowns surrounding Lima. Remaining an outsider was not an option. We did not need to see the e. coli under the microscope to know it was causing dysentery, since we American students with our wimpy immune defenses knew all too well the plight of the children we were striving to help.

Now that’s not to say that I have been poisoned by fake medicine or spurious groceries here in China, or that I even fully comprehend the safety crisis since I can afford to shop at the best available stores. But being here during this series of events has made me realize the extent of the problem, a case study that could have been ripped from the pages of one of my college texts on nutrition, globalization, or public health. If nothing else, I’m recalling my passion for these subjects, my outrage at how governments and corporations can play games with populations’ health like they were meaningless rounds of cards.

Everything here is at risk of being counterfeit, which is good and fun when you want a faux Gucci handbag or 20 pirated DVDs for five bucks, but when the paper currency, infant formula, and aspirin are shams, it becomes more than a little annoying. It’s my belief that this corruption does something to a society, infuses individuals with suspicion and distrust that is hard to shake, and if all you have ever known is dishonesty, often to only way to survive is to continue in the same vein. Nearly every day as I near our Cirque du Soleil tent, I am implored to buy fake Quidam tickets and merchandise. That is one well-oiled machine, since our show has been here all of maybe two weeks!

Regarding our audience, there is something wacky going on. In all cities the seats in the Big Top are divided into categories, with the highest-priced being the front-and-center VIP tickets, the so-called “Tapis Rouge” (“red carpet”). In the U.S., these average about $200 and include access to a decorated tent where guests can lounge, drink champagne, and be dazzled by Cirque décor and music. Tapis Rouge may be exclusive, yet the demand is always there; wine-woozy corporate types and chicly dressed couples stare up at me from the front row nightly. Here, though, as I release my hoop and come to bow at the front of the stage, I am met with a spooky absence of warm bodies – just empty, privileged seats.

I’ve asked my director about this, as it does nothing good for our morale as performers. Not only are the front rows empty, but the back and sides are full of people carrying on conversations loudly, using cell phones, and flashing their cameras impetuously. I’ve been told it’s got a lot to do with the current transitioning economy and repercussions of communism. The wealthiest of customers who can afford Tapis Rouge are such a teeny tip of the pyramid and the ushers are terrified of promoting others (who didn’t pay the full price) up to the front, lest there be anger and chaos at the unfairness and inequality. Paradoxical, no?

It’s time now to switch on the idiot box (I really rarely watch TV) for some sick-day indulgence. I’ve made myself some luscious miso soup from scratch with tofu, fresh ginger, and a hodgepodge of vegetables sure to be healing. Despite my problems with this country, they sure know how to handle a soybean, and I’m in heaven with the wide variety of tofu and vegetarian products here. Though I have yet to sample it, there is a whole category of cuisine that specializes in meat-like vegetarian dishes, i.e. soy spareribs, wheat-gluten duck liver, and vegetable protein pork belly. Kind of goes along with the whole forgery trend, but it deserves a try some day soon.