Going ‘silent’

Tomorrow, Thursday 12th May begins a new phase of the lockdown in Shanghai. We are entering a 4 day ‘silent’ period. Essentially this means that there will be a super strict enforcement of the lockdown where no one sets foot outside their apartment and there can be no deliveries whatsoever.

This feels very much like putting the clocks back as we had been getting quite used to being able to walk in our compound. People scoot, cycle, jog and stroll around a small circuit that probably totals 600 steps. Others do yoga, HIIT or play badminton. I do my Taiji outside and even teach classes to my colleagues. It has become quite a social bonding experience to take the air with our immediate neighbors.

The grass is getting quite long

And deliveries have been a real life saver. Our local fruit seller has been diligent in supplying us with fruit options on a regular basis. Hugely expensive but nevertheless we have paid just to get fruit in this situation!

Deliveries have been stepping up recently and people are able to get burgers and fries delivered. Alcohol and even fresh flowers. It has begun to feel as though things were returning to more normal.

There are groups in each compound who do bulk buying and then share things out. We have no idea how to do that (except with Mr Deng, the fruit seller who posts things to us in English). You need exceptional mandarin to be able to navigate the apps and delivery requirements. But some class teachers have been very well supported by parents and they have very kindly shared out the surplus with those of us in central services.

I have been very fortunate to have been asked to read every day to a 5 year old who lives opposite in return for food. Her mother is a dab hand at acquiring goods and she can get anything I need. She has managed to secure oats, lamb, vegetables, bread and even much needed stock. We have truly lucked out!

My little friend dresses as Belle for reading because Belle is smart because she reads.

Actually deliveries have proved to be a bit of a problem to the government. They suspect that the virus is being transmitted on packages. I heard of a driver who tested positive yesterday so all the people who had received packages were automatically put into a quarantine facility regardless of the fact that they never saw the guy. He just left the package at the gate and the person went down later to collect it. But not only that. If any of those customers who were taken away subsequently test positive then everyone who lives on their floor, the floor above and the floor below will also be taken into quarantine!!! This seems really harsh. We are just hoping that none of our neighbors order from any dodgy places…!

Friends in other compounds with positive cases during the last week went silent yesterday but we had 24 hours notice. Which meant that we have been in the fortunate position of having 24 hours notice. We teachers got together and did a panic buy of … grapes! Well. Fruit is all we know how to get. Other people here have gone all out with their contacts and the supplies have been rolling in. This is one of the guards (all the staff here are locked in with us) taking deliveries to the various towers.

Testing continues apace with tests daily and often twice a day. Yesterday it was 9pm and then again at 7am. We are getting REALLY good at doing them.

You have to respond quite quickly when calls for testing come. I heard of one lady who had tested positive and they called her at midnight then 3am to go to a quarantine facility. She was asleep and missed the messages. So she was labeled as ‘non-compliant’. You really don’t want that here! Our management send messages asking us to ‘please cooperate a lot’ which makes me laugh because either you cooperate or you don’t. It’s not something with degrees of.

Interestingly Dr Tadros, director of the WHO came out today saying that China’s approach is ‘unsustainable’. A video clip of his speech was circulating on our WeChat groups. I saw it but literally minutes later it was taken down by the government. Here’s a transcript which subsequently circulated and which they couldn’t take away quite so easily

The government did, however provide us with food ahead of going silent. Not bad this time

Non uniform carrots.

I have had further adventures with cooking and made tofu and mushroom soup today

The food parcel today was much better than the previous ones which contained all these bottles and I have no idea what is in them! I won’t be using any.

We very often play ‘Guess the vegetable’ here is an example of something green received by my friend. Can you guess what it is?

After research we discovered it was garlic chives

Word on the street is that the government wants to stamp covid out and get rid of it by the weekend!!! Cases are coming down

If we can do this final push and IF it works in eradicating covid then a reliable source says that Shanghai could open up completely on 27th May.

Watch this space….

Shanghai Lockdown

Many of you will have seen the recent news reports about lockdown in Shanghai. It’s all true. Here’s how it has been for the Toner tribe out here:

After the initial Wuhan outbreak in March 2020, China has sucessfully kept COVID at bay for two years through very strict border controls and quarantine processes. We were slightly smug as we sat in restaurants, theatres and bars watching the rest of the world in massive panic as COVID ripped through country after country, with the death tolls mounting. We were lucky, we told ourselves, that we were so safe here. It was a gilded cage as we couldn’t leave the country but for two summers we explored this vast country quite happily.

Things started to go pear shaped in October 2021 when cases popped up in various towns and cities and we were advised not to travel for Golden week or Christmas or again for Chinese New Year in 2022. We were confined to Shanghai, but still it is a massive city of 25 million people so there was plenty to explore. We weren’t worried.

Then the cases in Hong Kong began to rise dramatically and that’s when the problems began for us. It all started to go very badly wrong at this hotel

Once the pride of Shanghai’s tourist industry, it was the first 5 star hotel to be built in the city. Opened in the 1980s it had 1000 guest rooms and a world class luxury service. In February this year it was closed for a much needed refurbishment, so when the passengers from Hong Kong began pouring into the city and more quarantine space was needed this was the ideal empty venue. What was not known was that the air conditioning and ventillation system was slightly faulty (due to age) and as passengers in quarantine from Hong Kong began to test positive during their 14 day stay the virus was actually being blown out into the community instead of being contained in the building. Quarantine facility staff and other workers quickly took the new Omicrom variant home at the end of their shifts and the rest, as they say is history…

Covid cases began to spring up in various places around the city which became known as ‘hotspots’. On Wednesday 9th March one of my library assistants told me that there was a case in her compound and she was going into a 14 day lockdown.

By Friday 11th we were informed that all schools should close and every student right up to Higher Education level would switch to Distance Learning. We were surprised at the short notice but we were better prepared than we had been in 2020. Faculty were allowed on campus, with their children but all lessons were on zoom. The PRC (People’s Republic of China) staff were asked to stay at home, largely because they used public transport to get to school whereas we all live relatively near by and could walk in. My second assistant was in that boat. So began two weeks of me running the school ibrary alone, zooming into classes for read alouds and responding to requests from parents for books via our Click and Collect scheme. I did a lot of walking during that time!

We were discouraged from ‘gathering’ and in an abundance of caution many social events were cancelled but little did we know how bad it was going to get…

It was 9pm on Sunday 25th March when we received the notification that the whole of our side of the city, Pudong, was going into a 4 day lockdown. Several (lots) of us rushed out to Carrefour to have our first taste of panic buying. Kevin and I felt very pleased with ourselves as we managed to secure milk, bread and some veg that would last us to the end of the week. During the week we were tested every other day and fully expected to be let out before long. It was quite nice not having to get up so early or do a commute. Then we were told that we needed to stay in for a further day as the test results had not been delivered. The lockdown was being extended.

Now when I say lockdown, really I mean prison! We have to stay in our apartment. We cannot go outside at all, unless we are being called for a Nucleaic Acid Test (NAT) and even then we are encouraged not to ‘mingle’ with each other. Even Kevin and I had to stand 1m apart and we live together!!!

The first week passed very gently, we did Distance Learning but from home which for me is largely preparing and reading stories. Without my books there was a limit to what I could do, but I found little online jobs to keep me occupied. It was all good.

My new office!

After a week, though, some of the folks began to get a little ansty. They wanted to be able to walk outside even just in our compound but the answer was a very firm NO. The PE teachers took to running up and down the internal emergency staircase!

Food supplies began to dwindle, but unlike in outher countries where trips to the shops were permitted, we couldn’t leave our apartment and neither could the shop owners or delivery drivers! The situation was beginning to get a little worrying. I had a store cupboard with pasta and rice etc and stuff in the freezer but the fresh things like bread, milk and eggs were running out. I was also hearing about friends and colleagues who were very short of food. Our ayi lives in a single room with a shared kitchen and very little storage space. She was getting desperate and I felt dreadful as there was nothing I could do to help.There were people who were literally starving!

Worry began to set in and people began to seek sources of food. Some wholesale food was sometimes available in large quantities so people have been clubbing together in compounds to buy between them. You end up with LOTS of something and nothing of other things. I was lucky and managed to get 20 mangoes and a huge bunch of bananas on one occasion. And we were particularly delighted by the washing up bowl full of strawberries!

Then the government stepped up and rather belatedly sent out some emergency food parcels. Basically this was vegetables, and more than that, it was in season local vegetables so not things that I was necessarily familiar with or knew how to cook! Fortunately, my ayi who cooks for us has been tutoring me from her apartment and giving me meal suggestions. We have had some very weird and wonderful meals. It feels a little like a war-time situation where you have to eat what you can get rather than what you want. I am now adept at a dish called ‘strange vegetable soup’. I just bung in all the things that I dont know what to do with. We were even given a tin of Spam! Gosh, I haven’t eaten that for decades. Lockdown is not great for picky eaters!

Looks suspiciously like grass
But I made this… eggs, tomatoes and grass!

From all the chat in our social media groups, I feel that those of us with some cooking skills have fared rather better than those who previously relied on take aways or visits to restaurants. We are the ones with good old fashioned survival skills.

I was inordinately proud of myself for making this WITHOUT a bread maker

Concordia is a Christian School and one of the really great things about working in such a community is the care and support that we all give and receive. This was evident in the suprise parcel that we all received from the parents Goodness knows who had to pull what strings to get these boxes to us, but we were blessed with sausages, steak, toilet rolls, detergent, tissues, biscuits and eggs. It was a real life line. We are so fortunate and it was incredibly helpful.

Our goodies

And so passed another week. Social media got very very active as people sourced products which would sell out within minutes. Literally you turn your back on your phone and bam! You’ve missed 100 messages… We have developed a barter system as people got mixed bags of stuff but didn’t want it all. We leave food outside our doors and other teachers creep stealthily around the corridors and pick it up. Kevin has literally just come back from picking up some unwanted milk and mushrooms from the floor below us.

We have a LOT of instant noodles now.

Testing is now daily and it could be either the NAT tests or the self administered antigen ones (lateral flow). We even get tested twice some days!!! Oh joy! What this must be costing the city I dread to think. Actually the NAT tests at least allow us the opportunity of a walk downstairs.

We have now been given some medicine which we are supposed to take if we develop covid symptoms. I have no idea what it is but we all have plenty of it!!!

One of the problems that we have is the scare stories we hear about quarantine facilities. Shanghai has converted its massive EXPO centre and other huge spaces to house thousands upon thousands of beds. People who test positive but who are asymptomatic are being sent there and from what we understand conditions are terrible. Worse than having the disease itself! The toilet facilities are dreadful. There are no showers. It is very noisy with people snoring and they don’t dim the lights at night. This would be an absolute nightmare. We have all be advised what to pack should we test positive.

There is/has been much concern about the fact that children and parents get deprecated during this quarantine confinement, even very young children. Also people with pets. It’s hard enough not being able to take your dog for a walk, but who would look after your animals if you are whisked away? There have been some reported cases of the animals being put down.

The government here are saying that the fact the rest of the world is living with the virus doesn’t mean that China has to drop its standards. They still have 17% of the population unvaccinated, mainly the very old and the very young and they say that even if those people got sick then their facilities would be swamped and it would mean too many deaths.

The zero tolerance policy, however is not without its own casulties. I have heard about a toddler who could not get to hospital and died, her mother committed suicide after that. Also patients are being sent home from hospital as medical staff are redeployed to conduct the mass testing, and they are dying from lack of proper care. It is a very risky time to be here.

I have heard of riots in certain parts of the city, walkouts from compounds, grocery stores being raided and lots of disgruntled people. The government is walking a fine line here and it will be fascinating to see what happens next. Will they continue to stick to these draconian measures despite the logistical problems of keeping a city of 25 million fed and watered; Or will they accept that the disease is no longer a killer and is something that they can now never eradicate.

Many people are choosing to leave early but even that isn’t easy. You need to get a special test done (by a hospital) and then get permission from your compound management to leave, There are no taxis and no public transport. If you do make it to the airport many flight are being cancelled at the last minute. If that happens to you then you are stuck because once you have left you are not permitted back into your compound! Its a real difficult situation. We have a friend was was due to return to the UK but a positive case was identified and she was locked in and missed her flight…

Our compound has been fortunate not to have any positve cases in the last 3 weeks so we have now been allowed to walk outside in the gardens. It is a real treat to be able to do some taiji in the fresh air and feel the sunshine on my face. We are HOPING that things will ease up but who knows when that will be.

Until then we continue to get intermittant parcels from the government. We play this game!

Yesterday I got salted eggs (yerk!), salt and a life times supply of soy sauce! Oh and some bread rolls. Actually they are very sweet and more like maderia cake than bread. We won’t starve but we do have a strange diet.

We were a bit worried about repeat prescriptions but our insurance company has been amazing and got us a supply. We now have disinfectant and have to spray every thing we receive from outside.

In all this humor has kept us going. Dark humor at times but if you don’t laugh…

We look at the war in Ukraine and know that these problems that we are facing are inconveniences and not nearly as bad as being in a war zone. And on the bright side, we still have hot water and Netflix…

We are living through Shanghai history.

Shanghai and the virus

After two years of keeping Covid-19 at bay, China has recently experienced a surge in Omicrom cases. Until now, the strict immigration policies of three weeks in quarantine on arrival in the country has proven effective in isolating and dealing with any imported cases. China even constructed 3 huge 5000 bed quarantine facilities to deal with all the air passengers arriving in country. Everyone is isolated, robots deliver meals and cameras in each room monitor body temperatures constantly to see if a person develops a fever. If they do, they are whisked away to a treament centre for a month or more.

The net result has been that mainland China has escaped many of the surges that have impacted the rest of the world and life for us has continued relatively normally. Schools are in person, we wear masks only on public transport and we can travel fairly easily. We meet, mingle and party while watching other countries struggling to cope. It is though a gilded cage, becuase although we can travel within the country and the city we cannot leave.

SInce Christmas, however the numbers of imported cases have been on the increase, particularly from chinese businessmen travelling back from Bangladesh and Pakistan and bringing cases with them (all of which were trapped at the airports). As a consequnce, we have been restricted to our cities and have not able to leave Shanghai. Shanghai is huge though, with a population of 23 million so it didn’t really feel as though we were grounded. Folks just coulnd’t fly to the beach resorts in Sanya for their Christmas holidays. We weren’t planning to do that anyway so we didnt really feel the pinch.

Vaccinations were happening and most of the population has two shots of either SinoPharm or SinoVac and in January boosters were offered to foreigners too. In all some 87% of the population is vaccinated.

This was all going along fine UNTIL the upsurge of cases in Hong Kong. We know that the increase there was due to the large numbers of elderly who had felt so safe that they didnt bother getting vaccinated. Even with that crisis, mainland China was still fairly unscathed. Then disaster struck. Even with the best laid plans and the most enormous quanantine processes they couldn’t guard against the virus getting out into the population. It happened here in Shanghai where many people flying in form Hong Kong were being held in quarantine. As well as the facilities they were using hotels. In one case it was an old hotel that was due to be repurposed but was taken over for quarantine use. There was an imported positive case identified but most unfortunately the ventilation system was faulty. Instead of containing the virus in the quarantine rooms, it blew it out. Quarantine facility workers became infected, took the virus home and voila! It was in the population. Being the insidious Omicrom varient most of the infected were asymptomatic and had no idea that they were infected.

China’s zero-tolerance policy is under pressure. For the last month cases have been mounting daily and as of today 69 cities have the infection. Shanghai is no exception. Currently the numbers are low in comparision with the west and most cases are not serious. The vast majority are asymptomatic, but given the size of the population and the fact that the 13% who are unvacinated are elderly or very young, they are in the vulnerable category and with a populatin of 1.4 billion. those numbers are so huge that they could swamp the local hospitals.

SO, they country is facing a crisis. The reponse of Shanghai has been interesting. The city has opted not to go into a massive city-wide lockdown interestingly, becuase of the impact not only on the local economy but on the global one. What they are doing instead in targets lockdowns in local areas of ‘hotspots’.

China has an incredible effective track and trace system. We all use mobile phone for pretty much everything and one app contains our health code. We have needed to present a green code from time to time to access various things such as an art gallery, theatre of big events.

You can see the brown button third one along. That has a syringe icon on and gives I for about out test results. It’s very handy, all in one place.

My negative results. It has to be translated for me!!!

If we were found to be a close contact of a positive person then our code would immediately change to red. If we were a close contact of a close contact the same happens. In addition residential componds have been placed under 14 day lockdowns if they have a close contact of a close contact and schools, shopping centres and office blocks have all been subjected to mass testing if there was even one person who was a close contact of a close contact.

This has put everyone on high alert. Several schools that we know of were tested and officials swooped in and kept all the children there until testing was completed, in some cases until 11pm. Some schools had this happen multiple times. The school next door to us, a Chinese school was locked in for 48 hours. Children has to sleep in their classrooms!. Concordia, fortunately escaped that although we had contingency plans in place and everyone was issued with a sleeping bag and blanket!

Two weeks ago all schools and Universities were told to go to Distance Learning. It was a surprise but we were better prepared than two years ago!! This time staff were permitting to work on campus at Concordia (this isnt the case in other schools) and faculty children could also come on campus and do their zooming supervised by teaching assistants. Most of us live very close to the school but PRC (local) staff who have to travel on public transport were asked to staf at home. My two library assistants could not come in to work so I have kept the library service going by myself.

The city used a grid system to mass test the population of 23 million. What that cost I dread to think! Last saturday we were all required to have a throat swab and the test results appeared on our health app within 24 hours (very efficient I must say). The rules change here with the wind, so for all of last week we had to present the negative test results to the guards in order to get on campus. This week we were all asked to do self adminsitered antigen tests. We were told at 9am to wait in for the tests to arrive, They came at 10pm!!! Nasal swabs this time and we again need to show the negative test results at the school gate to gain access.

The person power needed to make the mass testing happen was phenomenal. Whole armies of volunteers were recruited, equipped and trained. it was a sight to behold.

There has even been a case in the news of a 90 year old who has been volunteering!!!!

Being out in the suburbs we have been very fortunate to have been away from the hotpots. Friends have not been so fortunate. Some we know have been in 14 day lock downs, Others 2 + 2 + 2 + 3 + 2 … Its a very fluid situation. And they have been tested 5 times in two weeks!!!

Unlike the first mass lockdon some shops are closed, online deliveries are disrupted and some people have found it very difficult to get food. We have been lucky that our local shop has stayed open and so far there has been no panic buying of toilet rolls!

Now, in an effort to discourage movement around the city people are being required to show a negative test result current within 48 hours. Our Ayi cannot go to work unless she has a current test and she has to queue up for hours at a local testing centre or else she doesn’t earn her money. It’s a very difficult situation for some, especially in the cold weather.

Unlike the rest of the world who has moved on with the virus and accepted that it is now an endemic rather than a pandemic, China has a different approach. Even if a small percentage of this vast population gets very ill the health system would be swamped. While this is good in the big cities the same cannot the said for the rest of the country.

China is taking a very different approach to that of countries in the west. How sustainable it is remains to be seen. We will wait and see what happens next.

PS. Literally a couple of hours after posting this we heard that we will ALL go into a 4 day lockdown + testing from tomorrow morning.

Hidden Shanghai: Art Deco

Once known as the ‘Paris of the East’, Shanghai had its heyday in the 1920s and 30s when the bright young things partied, foreign investors were prolific and local businesses boomed. Fueled initially by the profiteers from the opium wars this was a period of style and growth.

There were a large number of foreigners living in the city at that time and buildings sprang up reflecting a fusion of Chinese and Art Deco styles known as ‘Chinese deco’. Today Shanghai is home to one of the richest collections of Art Deco architecture in the world.

The Bund has the most famous and iconic places but this week a few of us hardy teachers set out under a grey foreboding sky to explore the streets of the French Concession in search of some more of the hidden gems.

Our tour began at the Shanghai Library so this is a busman’s holiday photo

This building shows the Spanish villa style of architecture with the soft sandstone stucco walls, the spiral features on the columns and a mixture of square and round windows Note also the pitched roofline

Here is a good example of fusion architecture. The rectangular window with the ‘Spanish’ style columns next to an octagonal window which is known as a ba gua (or 8 movements In Taiji)

Here is a nice example of the curved windows which represent a ship in Art Deco. Many of these houses were formally owned by big businessmen or senior members of Chiang Kai Shek’s nationalist party. Nowadays they are divided into apartments and house multiple families. In this building a one room apartment of 10 square meters with a shared bathroom and shared kitchen would cost $1 million today.

A modern building but a nice Art Deco lamp feature
This street is where the red army first came and attacked locals in what became the very beginning of the Cultural Revolution
Beautiful geometrical bamboo panels give a very natural feel in this city of skyscrapers
More residential areas should be like this
A beautiful door feature
This building now houses 13 families
We wondered if this was where damaged books went to be repaired…

In actual fact it is a hospital specifically for artists and people who work in the media industry. How cool is that!

Designed by the Hungarian architect Laslo Hudec this is the most photographed building in Shanghai outside of The Bund.

Simple, stylish snd elegant

The Year of the Tiger

Chinese New Year 2022 is an extra special celebration for me this year as it ushers in the Year of the Tiger which is my birth year. Of all the zodiac animals this is one of the coolest (better than being a rat or a rooster!) but maybe not quite as cool as the dragon.

Tiger gifts

Tigers are people born in 2010, 1998, 1986. 1974, 1962 and 1950 (but not the January of those years as the Chinese zodiac follows the Lunar years.

We always decorate the library and even change all the face on book displays to ones with red covers. It makes the space feel lovely and warm.

Chinese New Year is always a lot of fun in the library. We dress in red and this year we have lots of tiger decorations.

… and Tiger stories. Here Pre-K are acting out the story of ‘It’s a Tiger’ with me (along with plenty of screaming)
I love the displays around the school

My team always get me a gift at Chinese New Year (I give them one at Christmas). This year was extra special as they got me all ready for my animal year. They really are the best and look after me so well.

I got a cosy red pajama set.

In the year of your zodiac animal you are supposed to face a year of challenges, set backs and bad luck. But you can counter this malign influence with the right protection

Here I am being given my protection
A beautiful red bracelet with a cute golden tiger in the centre. The bracelet has to be worn until the year is over and will protect me from evil spirits.

The bracelet has to be worn for the whole year and not taken off until the year of the rabbit starts in 2023. The bracelet is worn on the left hand because that is the hand that gains wealth and prosperity whereas the right hand is the one that spends the money!

There was also a set of red tiger themed socks. Apparently it is customary during the year of your animal that you wear hidden red ie red underwear. This is trickier for me to do as most of the underwear here does not come in ‘western’ sizes. I can do socks during the cold weather but I think that I will just have to rely on the bracelet for most of my protection this year.

Tigers are EVERYWHERE

I had the chance to do some calligraphy. This is the character for Tai. Not bad for a first attempt but I think that I need more practice.

All the shops are gearing up for the holiday season just like we do at Christmas. This one is aimed at us foreigners. This basket costs £90

In my cool new lion hoodie under the zodiac animal display
The library gave the gift of reading to each child in pre-school
Students did special activities in rotation on the last day of term.
The little ones did a parade of their own with lots of drum banging.
And kindergarten made cards
Here is Ms Baker with her blossom picture
We had a stunning back drop for photos in our Makerspace
With the library team
I even sang in mandarin!!! right hand side towards the back. See if you can spot me.

At the whole school assembly we were treated to a dragon dance

An edible tiger gift from the parents of the honeybee class. It’s lovely how the library staff are remembered and included.
Beautiful people. Everyone wears red
Our cheery little library mascot

Taiji – one year on and feeling the Qi

A year ago, when we were confined to staying in China for the summer holidays, we went to a Taiji retreat on Chongming Island, hosted by the husband of Leping, one of our Mandarin teachers. The exercises and movements resonated with me and after a decade of suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and its after effects, I found that I was more energized. This was quite miraculous to me and the benefits of the movements encouraged me to continue with classes after school and to keep up my own practice each morning. I would get up half an hour early and do my wake up exercises followed by 10 minutes of meditation to set me up for the day. I found myself bouncing off to school feeling refreshed and ready for work.

There are many different styles of Taiji and we are studying Nei Gong, which means ‘inner energy’ and which focuses on posture, body alignment and working on the joints and tendons to ultimately unblock your meridians. In class we learn our ‘routine’ which has 57 movements and we add to our practice each week with another move. I found that the more movements I learned, the earlier I needed to get up to be able to fit the practice in! I was slowly becoming addicted.

Early morning practice during the holidays

As the year progressed and we still couldn’t travel we had daily classes in the Christmas and Chinese New Year holidays to learn QiGong movements, particulary one developed by Shifu to strengthen the spine.

I am aware that modern living is not good for our posture. We hunch over computers, phones or even books and slump in chairs or on sofas and that this poor posture can contribute to multiple ailments as we get older. Most people don’t even walk properly!! I find myslef watching people with poor gait as they plod down the street ahead of me with their toes turned in or knees splayed out. The worst thing that I see is ladies with shoulder bags. The shoulder with the bag strap on hunches up and the spine twists to the opposite side. Years of abusing our joints like this can lead to knee and hip problems, trapped nerves and aching shoulders.

Look closely. Each girl has one shoulder higher than the other. When the bags are heavier the shoulder will rise higher

Pro Tip: always carry backpacks across both shoulders for even weight distribution. Fashion is not more important that your health.

In Taiji, if your bones and joints are correctly aligned and if you do the correct movements then it is the equivalent of having acupressure or acupuncture treatments. Much of Taiji is about self management and prevention of problems by living and moving correctly. Just doing the routine daily has huge health benefits. The shoulder exercises that I have been doing have freed a trapped nerve for instance. Practice does need to be daily though to have the desired effects but if you commit to it the results are worth it. Prevention is ALWAYS better than cure.

There are lots of documented health benefits to practicing Taiji from improved flexibility, balance and agility to greater heart, liver and kidney functions or better sleep. For me, the increased energy and improved posture alone were great.

But the biggest benefit came to me one day in April as I was walking to work early in the morning. I remember it very clearly. I was wearing my work backpack which was reasonably heavy and kept my shoulders back quite nicely. For some months I had been trying to walk intentionally, with a straight back, heel out first and eyes ahead, (walking like a Master). My 12 minute commute to school was good practice time. I arrived at the crossing and was waiting for the lights to turn green when all of a sudden I felt a strange shooting sensation rush down my arms.

When doing the exercises correctly, I had from time to time felt a gentle tingling in my palms and fingers. This I knew was the Qi or energy that we all possess and feeling that sensation gave me a particular buzz. It was like the dopamine that kept me coming back for more. So when the shooting happened in my arms, I recognized it as Qi but boy, this was much stronger than anything that I had experienced before! And it kept on going. I walked over the crossing and on to school marvelling at what was happening in my arms and hands and wondering when it might stop. It was almost like the moment when Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider. Except that I had to carry on going to work and I didn’t transform into anything remotely super or ‘heroic’

It did feel weird though having unusual sensations shooting like tiny bolts of electricity up and down my arms. I told Shifu and he said that my meridian had unblocked and that the strange sensations were the connections in the meridians being forged. This whole process took several days and during that time my palms felt extremely sensitive, so much so that I wasn’t keen on picking things up. I couldn’t say anything to anyone as no one would understand. Not everyone who feels their Qi has an experience like this.

On day three I remember being in a meeting in my boss’s office when the sparking feelings shot down my legs and the soles of my feet began to feel as though they were alive with electricity. I was amazed and was barely able to concentrate on the ‘budget’ proposals that I was supposed to be listening to. It was all quite distracting and it was certainly the strangest meeting I have ever had!

I am pleased to say that the shooting, sparking sensations eventually calmed down and I was left with a gentle tingling feeling. I feel this all the time now, not just when I am doing the routine and the exercises. I am now used to the feeling and hardly notice it when I am busy with other things. But when I want to, I can circle my wrists and hands and ‘play’ with my Qi. I do this if I am standing waiting anywhere and my hands are free. It is a most extraordinary and beautiful thing.

I suspect that many people may be reading this with a certain amount of skepticism, and I don’t blame you. I would too, if I hadn’t actually experienced this for myself. I know what I can feel but I don’t mind if you don’t entirely believe me, I will still feel it.

In actual fact very few practitioners reach the stage of feeling their Qi all the time. Or at least admit to it, or openly talk about it. It creates jealousy among those who think that they are Masters but who can’t feel their Qi all the time.

I know of only 5 of us, Shifu, me and 3 of his other students. Because of this enhanced feeling I have graduated to the ‘high level’ group. Many people practice Taiji for years and never achieve this deep and lasting connection. Some people doing the other styles of Taiji or Kung Fu have to unlearn their incorrect movements before they can experience this. I have been told that I did a sort of ‘short cut’ and it is probably because I came to the lessons as a blank canvas, never having done any sort of martial arts before and because I have been practicing every single day.

All this is to say that I am well and truely hooked. I now have the ability to move my Qi around my body and to not only do ‘Soong’ which means to relax but also, ‘Fang Xia’ which translates as ‘letting go’. Letting go is so much more than just relaxing muscles, it is about relaxing and releasing everything including, tendons, fascia, bones and internal organs. It is a blissful, peaceful state where you can recharge your whole body.

In August it was time for the annual Milun Traditional School of Kung Fu Summer Camp on Chongming Island. This is a 10 day event when some of the high level students gather together (well those who are currently in China- we missed you Javi). It was great to be able to meet up and chat about our Taiji journeys and to practice together.

Summer Camp group

One of the opportunities we had was to practice skills such as ‘push hands’ which I had recently been learning. This involves giving and receiving Qi through contact in the arms and wrists. In some forms of Taiji this has been turned into a competition and you look to throw your opponent when their Qi is weak. When we do it though, it is a relaxing exchange and not about who is a ‘winner’. Life is so much more than that.

Yu Ting and her husband
Xiao P with Shifu

Every morning we began with exercises in the flower garden at 6.30am. This was the coolest part of the day, although not for very long as even on the island it would reach temeratures in the 30s with extremely high humidity. It was almost a 3 outfits a day experience we got so sweaty!

Early morning in the garden

After a chinese breakfast of congee, eggs and bread we had standing meditation. Being mosquito season we all had to wear these nets which I can testify were VERY HOT! We began with 25 minutes and built up to 50 minutes. I had been practicing but I do find anything over 30 minutes very difficult. My feet go numb and I get a pain behind my left shoulder blade, which we eventually attributed to carrying armsful of books for my entire working life when shelving! A librarian injury!!! I now have some daily exercies to help to loosen that muscle up.

With my buddy Ginny

After meditation we had Taiji practice. Mostly Xiao P and I went off to practice doing the routine as slowly as we could. This is actually extremely challenging as it takes 2 hours to complete and you really feel as though you have given your muscles a good work out by the end.

Moving Leping with my Qi

After lunch and a much needed nap we had I Ching lessons in the room by the lake. I Ching is an ancient Chinese philosophy and is quite complex. It is based on the Bagua symbol of elements and on one level can be used for fortune telling but it also has many rich layers of meaning.

We were told the transliteration of ancient chinese characters and had the meaning explained. The native mandarin speakers all wrote this down but I had to figure out what it actually meant and turn that into some sort of sentence that made sense in English! It was all very deep and academic but we had lots of breaks for tea ceremonies.

The centre where we stayed is also a farm so all the food we ate was organic. It was pear season so at every meal we had deliciously juicy Chinese pears. Interestingly, the chinese who eat all sort of parts of animals like chicken feet or organs, never eat fruit with peel or skin on!

After dinner we would do half an hour of walking meditation which involved different types of intentional steps, some slow, some fast and some designed to correct our own individual posture. It was pitch dark by this time and again we had to wear our nets as it was prime mosquito time.

Finally we would take our towels down to the lake and do a seated meditation. I am rubbish at sitting cross legged and had to have a special stool, even then it was uncomfortable! When the bell chimed at the end of the meditation we could all lie back and look up at the stars. It was relaxing to lie outside on the deck in the sultry night air and contemplate nature. We even saw some shooting stars.

I couldn’t stay for the full 10 days of Summer Camp as I needed to be back in Shanghai for my operation. I was sad because I knew that once I had been under the knife then I wouldn’t be able to feel my Qi anymore. It was going to be very busy healing my insides and the anaesthetic would deaden everything.

That is exactly what happened. For four weeks I couldn’t feel my Qi at all. Mind you, I was hobbling around and barely able to walk properly. The surgeons were very keen that I resume walking and gentle Taiji as soon as possible. They don’t want patients developing thrombosis.

I am pleased to say that I can now feel my Qi again. It has come back and is even stronger than it was before. The tumor which has now gone was obviously blocking some of the meridians and impeding the flow of Qi around my body.

I may not be able to spin webs or catch criminals but I know that my Qi helps with healing and that’s a kind of super power. Things happen for a reason that we don’t always understand what they are but maybe I was meant to be here and to learn Taiji so that my Qi could help me to recover from this major operation. I feel better and better each day and I know that my Qi has played a huge part in helping with the healing process.

Some ball work by the lake

Enter the scalpel: health services east & west

Into every foreign adventure a little rain must fall… and this summer I have had quite a tsunami!!

One of the benefits of working in international schools is the health insurance package and the deal that we get with Concordia is excellent. It is so much better than the one I had at Shrewsbury which seriously was the most basic of basics. Here at Concordia, we are encouraged to have an annual wellness check up in the summer. We didn’t do one last year as everything was a bit topsy turvy with covid etc. This year, however I saw other people going for theirs so I thought , why not. The insurance company allow us 3000 RMB each for our wellness checks and surprise, surprise that is what they cost at the clinic. We thought it would be nice and satisfying to see exactly how fit we are!!! Especially as I was feeling so good after a year of learning Taiji. Little did I know.

Because we were not traveling as much in the vacation as we normally would, we had plenty of time so Kevin booked us both an appointment at the WorldPath clinic. We didn’t really know what to expect as being British, we’d never had one before. Unlike other countries we just don’t have a culture of annual health checks. I have had to explain to many people here that the NHS is so stretched with reacting that it doesn’t have the capacity to be proactive and do annual screening for the whole population. In China, they take the approach that by screening everyone, problems can be nipped in the bud which then takes the pressure off other services. It’s actually very sensible.

Anyway, at Worldpath the tests were multiple and thorough. I was told that my bone density is low (which explains the stress fracture in my foot from earlier in the year). I then had an ECG, ENT, vision tests, bloods taken, gynecology exam and ultrasounds on breast and abdomen. It was during this last one that the technician asked if I knew that I had a cyst. I told her that I didn’t. I wasn’t worried. Cysts are common and usually small and usually no problem.

The doctor then called me in and said that I had an extremely large cyst on my left kidney and I needed to see a urologist immediately. He used the word ‘huge’ several times which didn’t sound so good. We were back the next day to hear that at 17cm the cyst was bigger than my liver!!! I was dispatched to have a CT scan two days later. Being private, through the school insurance, we could get this booked in extremely quickly.

I know that doctors have to tell you the risks, but this Dr scared me somewhat by saying that there was a 1 in 100,000 chance of death from the scan. Apparently some people are allergic to whatever they inject in you to make the image contrast. However, he said he had been sending people for 20 years and everyone had been ok. The mathematician in me started calculating the statistical likelihood of it happening now! The scan was a little scary but I didn’t die. I was ok. Phew!

The scan was at a Universal Medical Imaging facility and being a foreigner I was accompanied round by a translator. It was packed there with locals having chest X-rays as part of their annual screenings. There was no space for me to sit down while waiting. I needed a cannula to administer the iodine and this was inserted at the admin desk by moving aside about 50 clipboards with other people’s info on. It was all a bit chaotic and surreal.

There was a week’s wait for the results but fortunately that was when we were away in the Henan Province with the Taiji crowd which was a great way to be distracted. I hardly thought about the cyst at all.

Interestingly though, there was a monk at the Shaolin Temple who was practicing Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). For approx £5 he could do a consultation. I was curious to see what he would say about me so I went along. The monk put 3 fingers on my right pulse and then on my left. He actually listens to the meridians rather than just the pulse as we understand it. Through an interpreter (because he spoke no English) he told me that my liver and kidney functions were low. Then he said that there was something growing in me and I should seek medical attention when I got home!! I was astonished that he could tell all that in just 2 minutes of putting his fingers on my wrists. My respect for TCM has gone up. Kudos!

On our return from Henan we met with the urologist to review the scan results. He said that I needed a ‘radical nephrectomy’ (left kidney removal) because the tumor was covering 90% of the kidney which effectively meant that there was nothing left to save. I was also informed that the tumor is most likely (85%) to be cancer but they couldn’t tell for sure until it is removed and tested. So began my intense engagement with Chinese medical services.

This was quite some news to take in, particularly as I had no signs or symptoms. I felt no pain whatsoever and if anything had been feeling generally better than I had done in a long time. You can imagine the shock. It took quite a while to process it all and for a long time it didn’t feel ‘real’

The purpose of this blog is not only to document for me what happened but also to highlight some of the cultural differences in the health services.

I was told that I needed to be admitted to a Chinese state hospital due to the complexity of the surgery. They had all the equipment and they had ICU recovery in case anything went wrong. Private international hospitals here are for smaller, more routine procedures. So, I had no choice but to accept. However, not everything was as I would expect it to be.

I should point out that in normal circumstances for an operation as major as this I would have been shipped off to one of the large, well equipped International hospitals in Thailand or Hong Kong but covid has prevented such travel. So, unlike most other teachers or ex-pats here I got to experience a ‘Chinese’ hospital.

My school HR were great, once I told them the news they swung into action and put me in touch with our health insurance broker, a guy called Owen who to my relief spoke English!!! It’s amazing how important something like that is when the chips are down.

The next big thing to happen was that the urologist at Worldpath had asked for a PET scan to see if the cancer had metastasized. BUT I got an email the next day saying that the insurance company had rejected the request. I went into a flat spin not knowing what that meant. In the UK if your doctor wants you to have a scan, you go and have one. You might have to wait for an appointment but you do get one. No third party turns around and says that you can’t have it!!! The whole medical insurance system was quite alien to me. Owen was fantastic and he sorted it all out. There had been a problem with the paperwork. I wouldn’t have known what to do myself.

After the PET scan I was presented with a large bag containing sheets with the scan images on, a CD of the images and a report in both Chinese and English. This is very different to the UK where such things are exchanged between the medical professionals only and you don’t have to schlep sheets of images around yourself.

It was quite a low point when reading the PET scan report as it began, ‘the patient has an unremarkable brain’. I was a bit disappointed to read that until I discovered from reading further that really they meant that there was nothing wrong (phew). Quite a lot of things (apart from the left kidney) were ‘unremarkable’ which was a good thing. They didn’t find any evidence of any cancer spread but the report confirmed that the tumor is ‘very likely’ to be cancer. Gulp.

It was at this point that things started to get very different from the dear old NHS. The insurance company asked me which hospital I wanted to go to for the operation. I was being asked to choose the best hospital for urology in a city where I didn’t even know what hospitals there were!!! I was sent the CVs of several surgeons which baffled me because I had no idea whether being on the editorial board of one journal was better than being on a committee for research etc etc It was all getting a bit much, particularly as I was still ‘in shock’ about the diagnosis. The urologist at Worldpath recommended The People’s 9th hospital because his mentor worked there but it turned out that my insurance company didn’t do direct billing with The People’s 9th. Also we weren’t sure if they had an International wing. This was important because I was going to need people who spoke good English. Or at least ‘some’ English.

I was in a bit of a quandary and didn’t know what to do, which hospital should I choose from a series of complete unknowns. The Americans do exercise more control over who they see but it’s so different in Britain. I am used to being sent to a hospital/surgeon and that is that!!! Too much choice is not necessarily a good thing. I rapidly became aware that some suggestions were nepotistic (money from Insurance was involved) and some suggestions from the insurance company might well have been about getting the cheapest deal rather than the best. It was very complicated and I wasn’t entirely sure who I could trust.

Then I went to church and in a swift answer to prayer I met Richard, the GP husband of one of our members. He doesn’t attend very often and in fact I hadn’t met him before that day, but over coffee I thought I would ask him which is the best hospital for kidney removal. Half an hour later I had an appointment in two days time at The people’s 1st Hospital with Dr Liu, the associate director of the Urology department. I couldn’t believe it. It is the biggest hospital in Shanghai but they do have an international centre AND my insurance do direct billing. Phew! I felt as though a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

In the meantime the insurance company required a ‘second opinion’. Again this was not something that I am used to. I guess that when spending large sums of money they want to ensure that it is all being spent correctly and that they only pay for necessary work. The second opinion service is based in the US so a doctor phoned me for a consultation one evening. I was then asked to upload all the scan images that I had. As these had been given to me on a CD my next problem, was, who has anything that can read a CD these days!!!

Fortunately Concordia came to the rescue and the tech hub do have the requisite equipment. Nicco was brilliant and he did it all for me. The images were such a high resolution that it took well over an hour just to upload them to One Drive. I was then able to share a link to that file with the US doctor. It’s incredible when you think what technology can do these days.

I think these are cross sections of my lungs. Bits of me that I don’t normally see!!!

The second opinion service took 7 working days to complete their report and they concurred with the local doctors that I needed a radical nephrectomy (kidney & tumor removal) and that in all likelihood the tumor is cancer.

This is major surgery but to be honest I was less worried about that than the fact that multiple people had warned me about Chinese hospitals and the fact that they are not big on post op pain relief!!! I heard stories such as c section patients being given only paracetamol!!! I was more anxious about this than anything else. I knew that back at home or in the private hospitals you can get western style morphine but the Chinese don’t like using it because they worry about people becoming addicted (which is ridiculous because you can’t even get a packet of paracetamol here without showing your passport!) how could I become addicted to something that I couldn’t acquire??? This more than anything else raised my anxiety levels.

The other cause for concern was that relatives are expected to do much of the in hospital nursing care. In Chinese hospitals there is usually a chair beside the bed which converts to a sleeping position for a relative. That person does all the personal hygiene care. They even have to go and get the various bits of equipment needed for procedures (& pay) before treatment!!! They are often in charge of feeding the patient too. For people who don’t have a relative to do this there are ladies who live in the hospital and you can pay them to do this care. I myself saw multiple old men being wheeled around the corridors of the hospital by their elderly wives.

Kevin accompanied me into hospital and whilst he is good at lots of things, nursing is not one of them!!! I was quite worried. He needed a crash course on how to give a bed bath!

Concordia were also helpful when the school nurse got involved and offered to talk directly to my medical team and act as a translation service if I needed it. This was useful because Nurse Jenny is familiar with medical terminology. The doctor had given me his WeChat contact details so that I could ask any questions but his English was a little limited. Either that or he just doesn’t talk much! In a foreign country people speaking broken English in shops or restaurants can be cute. You get the general meaning and gesticulation goes a long way. When it comes to medical information, however, it’s a whole different story and you want it as articulate and as accurate as possible. Having the school nurse on board was a reassurance.

Lots of people have been very supportive and helpful as I have navigated all this. But one day someone casually asked if I had sorted out blood in case of transfusion. What! WHAT!!! I have to do that!!! ME? Really?!?! Another case of me making assumptions about how hospitals work in a foreign country. I had assumed that like the UK national blood transfusion service, blood was supplied to hospitals. After some panicked investigation I discovered that in fact, they do. Phew! But then a chance conversation with my hairdresser two days before I was admitted explained everything.

The Chinese as a population do not have much rhesus negative blood. I am O neg which is one of those rare types which means I can only receive from other O neg donors; stocks of that particular blood type are extremely low here. Hence the problem. Emily put me in touch with a friend of hers who is connected with an organization called Bloodline. This is a group of volunteers with rhesus negative blood (largely ex pats I believe) and the day before my admittance they swung into action by creating a group of 7 people who were on standby to donate to me in the event of me needing a transfusion. I was so grateful and so touched. I honestly hoped that they wouldn’t need to but it was reassuring to know that they are there. I had heard stories about operations being delayed while blood supplies were found.

What this showed me is that I cannot make assumptions about how the health systems work here and I don’t know what else I don’t know…

Since booking my surgery there has been a bit of a spike in covid cases here in China. It’s not like the rest of the world as there were only 2 cases in Shanghai but the government reacts very stringently. As a consequence I cannot have any visitors and once he is in with me Kevin won’t be able to leave the hospital. This late news necessitated some last minute packing changes as we had been advised that I could be in for 7-10 days!!! We were also advised to pack a cool box with easy food such as cheese and biscuits, yoghurt and fruit in case I don’t like/ can’t eat the Chinese menu.

On Monday 9th August I duly arrived at the IMCC (International Medical Care Centre) of Shanghai General Hospital (People’s No.1) and was shown to my room.

Fortunately it is very nice, clean and quiet. I have actually been in worse hotel rooms but then again they don’t stick sharp things in you in hotels! There were 2 beds so Kevin didn’t have to sleep in a chair.

It’s all well equipped

I was asked to change into the hospital pajamas which are NOT flattering. Every patient wears these all the time. I think that it is to help staff distinguish between who is a patient and who is a relative. Fortunately the covid spike has meant that there is only one relative per patient rather than whole families!

Then the process of sticking sharp things in me began in earnest. I was taken for another CT scan (where I was injected with more iodine), they took loads of blood! I had a heart, neck and legs ultrasound, an ECG and a lung capacity test. I have had ENT surgery in the UK but never been so thoroughly tested before an operation before.

The Number 1 People’s hospital is massive and the IMCC is in building 12. Most of these tests required me to go to other departments in the hospital. I got someone in an IMCC burgundy uniform to take me and brings me back. What is interesting is that once we arrived in each department I jumped the queue! I can only assume that this is a privilege of being private (I’ve never done it before).

On arrival at the ECG section I was manhandled to the front ahead of an elderly Chinese lady and her husband who were clearly not impressed by this queue jumping. And to be honest, being British I was a bit uncomfortable too. I was pushed forwards and motioned to lie on the bed. Clips were being attached to me including round my boobs when the couple came in and stood there watching and protesting loudly about being usurped!!! Patient privacy… what’s that!?! This is China. They did eventually go back behind the curtain (to my relief).

It’s now op day -1 and I had a long chat with members of the medical team & their translation app! I now know that they will definitely be removing my left kidney, left adrenal gland, some surrounding fatty tissue and the upper part of my ureter. Actually he said uterus and I believed him but subsequently learned he got the word wrong!!! Communication has been challenging to say the least. I suggested that they take out as much fatty tissue as they want from my stomach but that went down like a lead balloon.

Apparently they can’t tell exactly from the scans whether the tumor is sticking to other organs or if there is a gap. If there is a gap then removal will be more straightforwards. I am hoping for that.

Here is another example of communication difficulties. When asked what time the operation would be Dr #1 told me that it would be at 4 o’clock. I was disappointed to hear this as it would mean long fasting hours during the day. Then Dr #2 said the operation would be at 12 noon. Better news, I thought. Then they actually came for me at 10.30am!!! The surgery took 4 hours so maybe that’s where the details were ‘lost in translation’ It is only a small point but it does make you cast doubt over the validity of other bits of information. I quickly learned that Dr#2 had the better command of English and fortunately saw him most often.

I had really tried hard to be as calm as possible, taking the attitude of ‘what will be will be’ and ‘this is something that I just have to get through’ I felt encouraged and supported by a huge prayer community which was remarkably reassuring. But from the point that I climbed onto the trolley I began shaking uncontrollably. I had to leave my glasses and hearing aid behind so communication, which wasn’t great at the best of times became significantly worse.

I was wheeled into a large bright room and had a cannula put in. Whenever they wanted to ask me something they wrote it on a piece of paper. Then I was ‘parked’ up against a wall and I realized that I was in some sort of queue. I have no idea how long I was there but it felt like ages. Then I was taken to a side room and given a nerve block in the spine which they said would help with post op pain. It did, but not for very long.

Poor Kevin was getting worried by 3.30 back in the room and no one was able to tell him any news. It wasn’t until 6.22pm that I was brought back. In another departure from NHS practice he was asked to help lift me into bed. Normally we don’t ask the relatives to lift what is essentially a dead weight!!! What if he had hurt his back!!! What if he had dropped me!!!

What began then was two nights and two days of agony, nausea and no sleep for Kevin.

I was wired up to multiple gadgets and tubes. One was ‘patient controlled analgesic’ PCA which was suspended above me but out of my reach. Kevin could press the button and I remember asking repeatedly for the pain relief. He was instructed to only let me have some every 30 mins but he tells me that often I would ask after only 10 mins. My concerns about inadequate pain relief were being borne out.

You can see in the picture above that I had a blood pressure cuff on. I wore this for 36 hours and it inflated, waking me up, on the hour every hour!!!

I also had tubes inserted into my carotid artery and I pretty much permanently had something dripping into me, saline, protein, antibiotics… It was actually quite a convenient place for the nurses to get to and surprisingly it didn’t hurt. Although I’m glad that I wasn’t conscious when they put it in!!! I could smell and taste the medications though and I felt sick as a dog. The nausea they told me was a side effect of the anesthetic but what they meant was that it was a side effect of the PCA. By the middle of the second night I was in such pain and felt so sick that I wanted to die. I think I said as much at the time. It felt as though I had been kicked in the back by a horse and simultaneously whacked in the stomach by a wrecking ball. I felt feverish and was crying.

At this point the nurse took the PCA machine away. She came back with an anti sickness injection and things began to improve marginally.

In the morning the head honcho nurse appeared by my bed, followed by a coterie of very respectful young nurses. She told me that she had heard about my pain problems in the night and that they would tell the doctor. A new bag appeared above me, I don’t know what it was but it worked on the pain and didn’t make me sick.

My view for a week

At the same time that I was feeling sick I was also very very hot. I kept throwing off the bed clothes and asking if the air con was on. It was on so high that poor Kevin had to wrap himself in a blanket when he sat by my bed. Holding his hand was quite a relief as it was like a block of ice and helped cool me down (briefly). Then I would start shivering and want the blanket myself. The nurses told me that my temperature was too high and I was running a fever. Apparently this is quite common after major surgery but it made the whole experience harder to bear. Fortunately after several days and multiple bags of antibiotics intravenously I am feeling more human again.

From the time I came back to my room I was told nil by mouth. This was extremely frustrating as I wanted to drink water. Previous post ops had encouraged sipping water but here, in an agonizing form of water torture it wasn’t allowed. Because I was lying on my back my mouth would open when I dozed off and every time I woke it felt like the bottom of a bird cage. One of Kevin’s tasks was to dip a Q tip in water and let me rub my lips and gums. I don’t know how I would have managed if he hadn’t been there to do that. It was day 2 before I was permitted little sips of water.

Communication, which was always fairly challenging, got a whole lot worse for me in the post op days as I didn’t have my glasses on or hearing aids in. In any case the staff were all , without exception, always wearing masks which makes things harder for me at the best of times. The staff didn’t speak to me much, there was no chatty, ‘how are you doing, love?’ Or ‘how are you feeling ?’ but when they did give me an instruction I honestly had no clue what they were saying. Which meant that things were happening around me and to me but I didn’t have a know what was going on. It was quite an isolating experience.

On Day 3 I was allowed to eat soft food. Basically this meant congee which is a rice porridge that is bland in the extreme. Meals were quite interesting as I was allowed the western menu Pre op and had salami pizza, roast chicken and spaghetti carbonara. Very tasty thank you. Post op, I was told that I would have to have the Chinese menu as it was healthier ie low fat, low salt and low sugar.

Breakfast was always the same. I couldn’t eat all of this even Pre op.

The standard breakfast. Mostly I ate the congee (bland rice porridge) and the sweet but dry toast. Kevin had the rest.

Lunch and dinner were tray meals plus a clear soup. Those soups were all I could manage in the beginning. One day it was mushroom soup but boy did it look like 2 floating kidneys…

The tray meal almost always included prawns (which I don’t like) some bitter tasting green vegetable, plain dry rice and something ‘meat’. Sometimes I could face eating the meat but, not the rest.

… but sometimes I couldn’t

I will never say anything derogatory about NHS food ever again.

Fortunately I had been advised to bring in a cool box of snacks. There is a fridge in the room so we were able to store yoghurts, pears, pringles, oatcakes, cheese and a little bit of chocolate. I knew that I was on the mend when I started to want some of that.

The medical team were pleased with how the operation went. The surgery was ‘robot assisted’ which meant that very precise work could be done.

Dr Liu at the controls of the robot. Not me on the table but this is the same robot that they used.

Robots can also twist 360 degrees which the human hand cannot. It was very clever really because they inserted a plastic bag around the kidney and tumor which they vacuum shrunk to make it small enough to get out. Even so the incision in my stomach was 10cm long! I have to wait 7 working days for the biopsy results. The medical team shared a picture with me of what they removed. It’s gross and looks like a baby alien. Message me if you’d like to see it.

A week after surgery, once I had proved that I could stand the catheter came out and the next day they took out the tube in my neck and a big drainage tube from my stomach. That was quite a surreal moment too. Kevin missed it all as he was in the shower. The Junior Dr from the team had done the neck one and told me to press on the hole for 10 minutes. He opened up the Velcro belt exposing the stitched up wound (not very neatly stitched I might add) when in came the cleaning lady. Once a day she appears and mops the floor. Despite the fact that I was having a procedure she carried on sweeping!!! I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t happen back home. What if the stuff she was sweeping got into the wound? What if I’d had private bits out? I couldn’t cover anything up with my hand because I was stopping blood coming from my neck… she had a job to do and so she just did it regardless.

Step by step I have been feeling stronger and able to move a little more. The doctors were very keen that I walk a little as soon as possible. Here I am one week after surgery doing a slow perambulation of the corridor. Those drip frames make excellent walking supports.

In other, smaller differences, the staff here don’t routinely change your bedsheets. I had to ask. That didn’t feel like good nursing.

Everyone has been so supportive and kind and I have received so many messages of love and prayer from all around the world. I have felt blanketed in prayer and I am truly blessed to have so many good friends. Work have been great and very accommodating. I won’t be there for the start of the school year but I have had the chance to put plans in place. Hopefully it will all run smoothly.

In America yellow is the color of friendship. I was so touched to receive these flowers from my friends and colleagues

I know that what I have been through has been quite traumatic but I honestly believe that I have followed a call to be here in China and maybe this is why. God moves in mysterious ways and I can only be grateful that He has put me here at this time with a chance of having this tumor removed before it became fatal. I would never have known about it otherwise. I am in a wonderful prayer community and that has been of huge comfort too. It has been hard being so far away from my family but Skype is amazing and I have been able to talk to them all from my bed.

Concordia and Trinity have combined forces to organize what is known as a meal train. We don’t have this at home but I think we should. Friends have signed up to bring us food every day for a fortnight from when we get home. It’s such a bonus to have practical care and support like this. Earlier in the year I cooked for others never thinking that I would be on the receiving end of the scheme.

Recovery will be slow as I get tired easily. I have been told not to lift anything for 3 months (which will be a challenge) not even a kettle.

In many ways this whole experience has been similar to being in a quarantine hotel just with more sharp stabby things and incredible pain!

I am very grateful for the skilled surgeons, the medical insurance and state of the art scanning and robot technology that has enabled me to have this tumor removed only 6 weeks after discovery. I’m not sure, however that I would want to go into a Chinese state hospital again…

We have now had a report back from the hospital which indicates that the tumor is a Mixed Epithelial and Stromal Tumor of the Kidney (MESTK). Once again communication hasn’t been great but Dr Google tells me that these are quite rare and unlikely to be cancer.

Nancy, Niu Niu & In-Fa

Back in 2015 we got to know Nancy. Nancy was one of the Chinese students studying at our University for a semester that we looked after. She is the one at the front in this picture visiting the Christmas Tree Festival in Morecambe Parish Church.

And here in the middle on a blustery day on Morecambe seafront.

We saw her again in 2017 when we visited Jiaxing University on our big trip to China (little thinking at the time that we would end up living and working here)

Memories of when we got trapped in our hotel room in Jaixing when the door lock broke.

Nancy got married last November but although we were invited to the wedding, at that stage, COVID restrictions meant that unfortunately, we were unable to leave Shanghai.

Then in April this year, Nancy gave birth to a lovely baby girl called Niu Niu (pronounced new new).

Nancy lives in the Anhui Province which is about 3.5 hours on a high speed train away from Shanghai. We traveled by train to ChiZhou where she picked us up and then it is another hours drive to her small town of Qingyang. It’s the sort of ‘off the beaten track’ town that doesn’t see many foreign tourists. In fact when we checked in to the hotel the reception staff hadn’t dealt with a foreign passport before so it took some time!

Visiting here isn’t really a day trip affair so we had been looking for a nice long weekend occasion to make the journey . Preferably one when there was no covid alert anywhere nearby. That occasion arrived when Nancy invited us to celebrate Nui Nui’s 100 day ceremony on 24th July.

To be honest, ceremony is probably overstating the occasion. I understand that in some parts of China the parents place 5 specific objects in front of the baby and whichever one the child grabs for first is supposed to symbolize what type of person they will be or what the future might have in store for them. This is then followed by a banquet for family and friends. It is a rite of passage done at the same sort of stage in a new life that we would do a christening.

In Niu Nui’s case everyone just gathered in a large function room in the hotel (where we were staying which was handy) that had been specially decorated. There was a very short speech made by her father thanking everyone for their support.

Then it was straight onto the banquet. And what a feast it was. In traditional Chinese banquet style there was dish after dish after dish for nearly 2 hours. Some dishes were recognizable and utterly delicious. Others were strange and a bit dubious. The tiny stewed turtles were a very definite no no!

This was the lobster and rice noodle dish. The lobster is stuffed with a carrot

A consequence China’s one child policy, I have noticed, is that this new generation of babies has a set of four very devoted grandparents each of whom was only permitted one child of their own. These grandchildren are therefore extremely precious and the grandparents don’t like to let go of them.

The upside of this is that the parents have loads of free childcare. This meant that they were available to show us around, have meals with us and do train station transfers. The downside was that I didn’t get much of a look in when it came to cuddles. The one brief time that I was able to pry Niu Niu away from her grandmother is captured here.

After the sumptuous feast it was back to our room for a quick nap before Nancy, her husband Xu Zhi Nan and their friends Stacey and Timon took us to see the local sights. Namely, the big Buddha of Jiu Hua. This Buddha is renowned for bringing good fortune and we were going to need it.

It was at that point that In-Fa happened. In-Fa is the name of the typhoon which had been forecast to hit Shanghai on the Thursday but actually landed in China on Sunday. You can see the weather chart below.

If you are going to visit the Jiu Hua Buddha I would recommend that you don’t go during a typhoon!!! It was fine when we set out but very quickly got wet.

Very wet. Umbrellas were the order of the day.

At least there weren’t crowds of people getting in the way of our photo!!

The Buddha was magnificent. but we were soaked through and Kevin needed some dry shoes as he had not packed a spare pair.

Emergency shoe shopping during a break in the rain.

We thought that having stuffed ourselves to the gunnels at lunchtime, that that would be it for the day. But no!!! We were corralled and taken to the next eating event which was a hot pot.

It was delicious but way too much for us!

Breakfast the next morning (while we were still digesting the excesses of the day before) was noodles.

Nancy and Xu Zhi Nan

Fortunately we had a little walk afterwards to a lotus lake

Xu Zhi Nan braved the giant lotus pond to present Lisa with a flower.

Then it was time to say goodbye. Nancy and Xu Zhi Nan had another 100 day celebration to attend in the afternoon so they put us in a taxi back to the train station. The driver thought it was a F1 race and we made the hour long trip in 30 minutes with us clutching whatever we could in the back as there were no seatbelts! It was then that things started to go pear shaped!!!

First of all there was a slight problem with Kevin’s ticket. It had been booked for us by a Chinese colleague but Kevin’s old passport number was used which didn’t match his new passport which he needed to get into the train station. At Shanghai they had just waved us through but here the lady was extremely officious and spoke no English whatsoever. After a few phones calls to friends for translation services we understood that we needed to take the passport and ticket to the ticket office to get it changed. And it’s a good job that we did.

The line at the ticket office looked like this

And our train was due to depart in 45 minutes. The queue was not moving.

Then we heard that all the trains to Shanghai had been cancelled. Thanks to In-Fa.

Some of you may remember seeing scenes on the news from a flooded subway station in ZhengZhou the week before. The authorities were not taking the same chances again.

Then to our utter amazement a foreigner approached Kevin. He was an Austrian guy and probably the only other non-Chinese person there. He worked for a metallurgy company and had been visiting a mine nearby. His train was also cancelled but his company had approved him a driver and a car to make the journey back because was needed in the office in Shanghai for an important meeting the next morning. He had seen our British passports clutched in our hands in the stationary queue and offered us a lift back to the city in his hired vehicle. The Big Buddha brought us good fortune indeed.

The drive on the way back was fairly scary though as we were driving into a typhoon and it got dark. At times it was more aqua planing that driving but fortunately there wasn’t much in the way of other traffic on the road. The gusts of wind howled and buffeted us. I tried not to look!!!

Four and a half nail biting hours later we arrived at his apartment block in Shanghai on the Puxi side of the Huangpu river; we needed to cross the river to get to our apartment in Pudong. The metro system had been closed so we had no choice but to call a Didi (like an Uber) but there were over 200 people in the queue ahead of us. We were tired, wet (but not hungry)

Then a car suddenly appeared and we had jumped the queue. Another piece of good fortune? We surmised that this car needed to go our way and wanted the fare. It did. But largely because it was broken. The suspension was shot and the engine kept failing. Only minutes away from home and I wasn’t sure that we were going to make it!!!

Luckily many prayers and the continued good fortune of the Big Buddha later and we made it.

That has to rank among the top 3 scariest journeys of our lives. (Although Kevin still maintains that the drive over the mountains in Nepal was fun and not scary!)

Shenhou: a smashing time!

Shenhou is a town in the Henan Province famous I am told, for making high quality porcelain or china (which gave the country its modern name) It is also our Shifu’s home town.

It is a beautifully restored old regional town built in a soft warm honey shaded stone. Somewhat off the beaten tourist track we were away from the crazy crowds of other places. To be honest, we foreigners attracted quite a lot of attention from the locals.

The Old Street
Porcelain is everywhere even the lamp posts
I love the shapes that these old tiles make
And there were quirky architectural features around every corner

The porcelain produced in this town is very special because of the local clay. Unlike the clay in other areas; when it is fired that is when the natural colour and patterns show. In essence you don’t actually know what the item will look like until it comes out of the kiln. Because of this the motto of the town is ‘By chance and By nature’

Some pieces are perfect and in the olden days were used only by the Royal Family. Nowadays the top pieces are given by the government as state gifts. On the pieces below you can see the natural patterns and perfect colours.

Starry night pattern
Shouxing: The god of longevity symbolized by his long beard.

Only the most perfect items are accepted. Any pieces with even a small imperfection are destroyed. The picture below is the ornate door into the office where high officials decided the quality of pieces. Only 36 would be chosen each year from all the craftsman.

My favorite photo of us all keeping perfect balance.
Our hotel

We stayed at the Gepu Hotel on Old Street which has to be one of the nicest and most tranquil places that we have ever stayed in.

We all wished that we could stay there for longer just to rest and luxuriate.

The food was local and tasty if probably a little too plentiful. This is breakfast. It was the very first time that I had been given pepper soup

It had a gorgeous private courtyard that was perfect for early morning Taiji and meditation.

This is Shifu in front of his childhood home. There was a new family there now but the children let us in. It was fascinating for us to see inside a home rather than just the tourist spots and hotels.

We got chance to have a go at a bit of pottery throwing ourselves. It was very tricky and not as easy as the pro guy made it look. What did I make? A mess!

Kevin made a dinosaur (every home should have one)
Peter turned out to be a dab hand at it. Look at that skill!

The next morning we attended a special ceremony. This is not something open to the public but Shifu’s friend has the workshop next door to this factory so he wangled us an entrance.

Basically after 3 days in the wood fired kiln, the China was ready to be opened and examined by the artist.

The items were arranged in lots. Notice that there is no #4. This is because the mandarin for ‘four’ sounds very similar to the word for ‘death’ so it is considered to be unlucky. You don’t every see a 4th floor in buildings!

The gong was sounded and this event which was being live streamed on the internet began. People began to call in to buy an unseen piece. All cost 2000 rmb (£260). When a bid was received it was opened and the artist gave the piece a thorough examination. If it was perfect then the person had purchased an item which could be valued at many times more than the price.

If an imperfection was found by the artist then the item is smashed. It’s an all or nothing game. The standards are so high that there are to be no seconds on the market.

Although it looked beautiful to me this piece was not perfectly round!
So here is where it ended up. So sad.

On average 90% of the pieces made end up being smashed. It seemed a little harsh on the buyers but apparently they would receive another item to the value of 2000 rmb but from the gas-fired, mass produced factory. It is a gamble whether you end up with a priceless piece or not.

And what do they do with all the smashed up vases? Well, this town had the most attractive gutters that I have ever come across!

Shaolin Temple

And so we moved to the highlight of the holiday: the visit to Shaolin Temple, the birthplace of Kung Fu. Behind us a statue of a monk holding his hands in the traditional salute.

As we entered the temple compound we each stepped on at least 7 of the lotus flowers carved in the stone flags. This was to represent 7 wishes /intentions as you enter the sacred space.

Shao is the name of the large mountain and means ‘young’ or ‘youth’. Lin translates as ‘forest’. So Shaolin means the temple in the young forest.

We went first to a Kung Fu performance by local students. All in all there are 1200 Kung Fu schools here and the largest has 35,000 students. These kids have a rigorous training schedule to be able achieve not only academically but also physically as the moves require great strength and flexibility. It’s a tough commitment.

(Not my photo but the routine here is tough!)

The Shaolin Temple was founded in 456 AD as the home of the Shaolin school of Buddhism when Buddhism spread eastwards from India. As the religion encountered Chinese culture it became the version which we know today as zen.

The temple was frequently attacked so the founding abbot trained his monks in fighting techniques and so Kung Fu was developed. They were the warrior monks who protected everyone else in the complex but they were highly successful so there was no shortage of recruits.

The rooflines draw the eyes heavenwards

I am fascinated by the creatures which you see on the curved rooflines. We discovered that these are usually animals associated with water eg sea horses, turtles, fish etc. The reason being that the buildings were all wood and so susceptible to fire. The animals are for spiritual protection and to keep the fire away by fooling it into thinking that the building is full of water.

The picture below is an original cooking vessel which would have been used to feed over 3000 monks. Being a kung fu school the monks would do extra endurance practice by being hung upside down over the pot to do the stirring. One has to hope that none of them ever had a runny nose!!!

The ginkgo trees in the courtyard are 1600 years old. There are multiple holes in the bark which legend says were finger punches from the monks’ training sessions but are more likely to be from them putting out the embers on the sticks that they used to poke courtyard fires in winter.

This is the son of dragon with its dragon head and turtle shell back. Sitting on and touching its head, neck and teeth is supposed to bring longevity, good fortune and health.

Busman’s holiday moment! This is the temple library where valuable manuscripts are stored. We weren’t allowed in (quite rightly)!

In the temple infirmary we each got a peach that has been specially blessed. Peaches are a symbol of longevity and although these felt suspiciously underripe at first, they were actually one of the best and most tasty peaches I have ever eaten.

Kevin found a friend!

This carving was very interesting. Can you see three faces? One in the middle and two in profile on either side. These represent the three main and interconnected religions of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.

Also in the Infirmary courtyard was a statue showing some of the body’s meridians. Taiji and Kung Fu work with these energy lines.

This is the pagoda forest. Each structure has the ashes of a master buried inside. There are so many that they are now running out of space so now only the abbot or very important contributors can have one. This picture below is the previous abbot so has trains, cameras and cars engraved on the plinth.

Michelle and Kevin enjoyed the ride

With a definite sense of dejavu we boarded a cable car and rode up to the summit on another very high mountain (only 1400 ft but who’s counting!). This was ShaoShi Mountain one of the 5 most important mountains in China. This one is considered to be the leader of the 5 so the most important mountain

And yet again, another scary cliffside walk which seemed to go on forEVER!!! I still didn’t much like it but again I did it (gripping Michelle’s hand this time). I sure am a glutton for punishment!

After that we did some filming. I put on my special Taiji outfit, the one that looks like calligraphy ink. It felt like being on a film set as there were soon crowds of curious onlookers around us, many of them also filming me as I did the Taiji routine. Part of what we do is to focus on the energy and ignore what is happening around us (which helped) It felt especially powerful doing the moves in front of the Temple gate and I could feel the energy very strongly there.

At one point we filmed me in my outfit with Peter and Shifu standing a little behind. They both had our group polo shirt on (with the Tai tree symbol that Kevin created). Shifu of course does the moves perfectly and so beautifully but someone thought that they were the students and I was the master and asked to join my school!!!!! It was all in mandarin so of course I had no idea what he was saying and just walked away! Lol!!

This was a beautiful gift for me and I am so touched and honored. It made the whole trip more meaningful and special.

We were curious to know how this place with such cultural and historical significance survived Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. We learned that in 1928 the Temple had largely been burned down after the Abbot supported the Nationalist Party. I guess the spirit animals on the roof hadn’t helped much. In any case, the temple complex was in bad shape and therefore ignored by the Red Army (fortunately). Only a few buildings are original. Most have been rebuilt or restored in recent years as martial arts have grown in popularity.

The Shaolin Temple is now more of a business than a religious institution. There are franchises all over the world and the town around has grown to deal with the tourists who flock there every year.

One of the tourist attractions was the sound and light open air show written by Tan Dun. It was quite magical to watch a cast of hundreds dancing and singing before the most impressive backdrop.

The lighting effects were out of this world. It was just a shame that many in the audience kept up loud conversations, arguments or watched videos on their phones!!!! It was frustrating for all of us who wanted to soak up the atmosphere and the music but reflecting on the experience I realize that there is no culture of attending theatrical performances (except Beijing Opera) so people did not know how to behave as an audience!!!