Updated: Aug 29
(Free image from Wix.)
(I originally wrote most of this piece as I was preparing to go on a study tour in China. Since then, my mindset has changed. I am less anxious and more inclined to feel sure of my perceptions. But I still think this piece can be a vehicle for thought.)
The fact is that sometimes when I think of being far from my home, I feel anxious. In order to deal with my anxiety, I have three tactics. I hide away somewhere by myself, I go for a walk by myself, or I try to think about enjoyable things I can do once the anxious-causing thing has passed. The last time I felt a desire to hide away but I couldn't, I was waking up from surgery. I was due to go on a study tour in China later that year and my wisdom teeth had started to break through my gums in a worrying way. The brochure from the private hospital had promised "a purpose built recovery area." So in my head I imagined waking up from a blissful sleep in a peaceful room, sitting in a lovely armchair, sipping my peppermint tea and looking down at an immaculate, peach coloured carpet.
As I was plopped onto the hospital bed, I heard a nurse laughingly reveal to another nurse that I had nearly drowned on my own vomit during the surgery. I could see there were a number of other patients in hospital beds around the room. The room was filled by the chatter of hospital staff speaking in gentle tones. The thought of throwing up after the surgery had filled me with no small amount of dread. At age 5 I had been taken to hospital for a tonsillectomy/adenoidectomy and after the surgery I had been unable to keep down any of the food my relative and the nurses kept forcing me to eat. The doctors had told them to let me eat slowly. Each time I was sick, the nurses and a relative would tell me off, as though I were doing this just to annoy them. I remember how my family couldn't afford to pay for the TV service above my bed, and the way I was reprimanded and restricted if I wanted to go to the nearby children's play area, where there were some books and toys. I particularly remember a Super Ted picture book, since it reminded me so distinctly of better times where I could sit on the sofa at home watching whatever animated claptrap was on. Instead, here I was, trapped in a hospital with no entertainment, no distractions from my constant feelings of nausea. No distractions from the battles I constantly fought and lost, trying not to be sick again so that I wouldn't be screamed at again. No distractions from the other patients and their mothers who watched me vomit. No distraction from my family or the nurses constantly forcing me to eat or drink faster than I was ready. I proudly call myself a recovering emetophobic. Some time later, a child woke up and started screaming as if he was being sawn in half. As I lay prone and immobile it took my mind straight back to those days. I had only slept around 3-4 hours the night before. I desperately needed sleep, but my legs wouldn't stop twitching. My stomach was sore since I had been fasting since around 10pm the night before. I was afraid, because I had been fasting fluids since around 4am that day and I feared that losing even more fluids might kill me. As I looked out the window, I could see a grey, depressing building and the swaying tops of gum trees. I desperately longed to be in my own bed instead of that horrible, hospital-beige room. I rubbed my stomach with my hand. When I'm nervous I always want to go to the bathroom. I told the nurse, hoping she might give me a bedpan and close the curtain. I often resentfully wonder why nurses always leave the curtain open, as though I want to be looked at by strangers in whatever state I find myself in hospital. But then again, in that moment I'm not sure it would have been best for me to be alone with my thoughts and feelings. She told me I couldn't go to the bathroom, since I was still too dizzy. Suddenly I felt much better. I had unknowingly soiled myself.
The first time I went to China, the woman I was travelling with was someone I knew to be something like a soap opera villain. I knew that if she saw me cry or throw up just once she'd torture me about it in ways worse than even my relatives and the nurses had in the hospital. At that point I was in my early twenties, but I was quite frail, having spent the last few months recovering from food poisoning. I had quarantined myself for around three months in case it was stomach flu, but the decision had wreaked havoc on my physical and mental health. Worse yet, she had more or less emptied out my suitcase and replaced the things I had chosen with the things she thought I needed more, meaning I had few familiar things with me on the trip. Then, as the trip went on she kept rearranging the content of my suitcase without consulting me, or moving my suitcase without asking, meaning I could never find what I was looking for, or if I did, it was always after a great deal of stress and provocation. When I'd lose my temper, she'd tell me of how unreasonable I was being. Every time I told her there was a specific food I needed to avoid, she would give me nothing but that food to eat and if I went to buy food for myself she wouldn't let me eat it. She'd argue with me as I prepared it and ate it. When I wasn't looking, she'd throw the remainder in the trash claiming that it had spoiled. One night, when I was meant to sit with a huge group of my Chinese relatives and eat a massive meal with them, I felt myself flying into a panic attack. Memories of having food forced upon me as I gagged flooded me. I told that woman I wasn't feeling well and I needed to rest in my hotel room. I lay in the bed in my PJs for a time till suddenly, the woman was there at the hotel doorway, with all my relatives staring at me as I lay there! They filled the room, sitting on every spare piece of furniture.
One young, female distant cousin sat on the bed with me. In Chinese, she asked the woman what was the matter with me. I tried to explain, "China is a very different country from Australia. I'm just having a little trouble getting used to how different everything is. I just need a little time." The woman translated to the cousin, "She is very, very spoilt." The cousin looked at her in absolute astonishment. The woman nearly sneered. It was only after all the relatives had left that the woman revealed that they weren't local; they had traveled from all over China to see me. I understand that to many people, knowing that there are people out there who probably think you're stuck up and contemptible is no big deal. But for a Eurasian such as myself, who was raised with a very strong ethic of, "There is the Chinese way, and there is the wrong way. There are Chinese things, and there are bad things.", a sense of being accepted by my Chinese relatives was important to me in ways I don't know how to fully articulate. When I was finally back in Melbourne, immensely relieved since I had spent much of the trip wondering if I'd ever see my home again, I made the mistake of getting into the car of the woman I had traveled with. She told me, amongst many other unkind words and in no uncertain terms, that I had ruined the trip. There was only so seriously I could take this remark. I had seen her argue, rush, insult and upset multiple people throughout the vacation. On the other hand, she is my elder, and much of my life I've been taught by my relatives to believe that if someone has something harsh to say about me, it's always somehow true, even if it's basically impossible. Inside me, there are always two sides fighting: The one that knows I'm right, and the one that knows I'm wrong.
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