21 November 2014

China in November

JINAN, Shandong Province, China—It is Sunday, 16 November. The Beijing airport terminal is so vast that, with the haze of pollution trapped inside the building, it is hard to see from one end to the other. I have barely landed and the pollution is already stinging my eyes and coating my lips with a familiar and unpleasant metallic taste. I was led to believe that Beijing air had been cleaned up for the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit meeting attended by world leaders, including President Obama. Perhaps it had.

The taxi journey to Beijing station is gripping, and the lack of functioning rear seat belts adds to the excitement. I keep my eyes on the road ahead, as if I were driving, hoping to see hazards before the driver does and to brace myself accordingly. My blood pressure rises as the driver takes calls on her mobile phone while weaving in and out of the traffic. My student helper, Fancy, seems oblivious to this near-death experience and casually attends to text messages on her iPhone, never lifting her head to savour the excitement. I’m back in China!

This purpose of this visit is to spend a few days in Jinan at Shandong University School of Nursing, from which I reported late last year. As I write this paragraph, I am now in the vast Beijing station. Fancy has disappeared, along with my passport, in search of tickets for the train journey to Jinan. I’m assuming I’ll see her again—passport and tickets in hand—but I always feel vulnerable letting my passport out of sight.

Monday, the 17th
The train journey was uneventful; I slept for the two-hour journey to Jinan. Fancy decided to purchase my return ticket and disappeared again with my passport, but passport and I have now been reunited, and I am in University Hotel at Shandong University.

Breakfast was a déjà vu experience; the food on offer was exactly the same as dinner last night, which did not raise my hopes regarding lunch. Not a word of English is spoken by the hotel staff so, using the international language of pointing, smiling, and showing my room card, I managed to persuade them, both last night and this morning, that I wanted to eat. To me, this seemed an obvious conclusion given my presence in the dining room between the specified hours, but nothing is ever straightforward in China.

My run this morning was one of the shortest ever. I am not sure if it was the subzero temperature or the pollution that was taking my breath away but, once I circumnavigated the block, I lacked the willpower to pass the front door of the hotel and was glad to see my room again. Because of jet lag, I’ve been waking up at 1 a.m., so I had seen my room for most of the night.

My emails this morning were comprised of communications from Fancy with nine manuscripts attached. This is part of my job this week, to advise authors on these documents with a view to publication. I will also deliver a lecture this afternoon on the scientific and ethical aspects of clinical trials. This is not especially my area of expertise, and which aspect of my résumé gave my hosts the idea that it was, I cannot imagine. But, as my wife says, lack of knowledge has never stopped me from speaking about anything.

There’s a stuffed polar bear in the foyer of my hotel. As I say, this is China.

Tuesday, the 18th
There's a polar bear in the lobby of my hotel!
My session seemed to go well yesterday afternoon despite the usual lack of access to the lecture room until exactly the time I was due to start. It is incomprehensible to my Chinese hosts that you would like to see the facilities and load your PowerPoint and infrared slide changer in advance. Thus, the first five to 10 minutes of any session here are spent trying to keep your flash drive in your hand and in sight. The over-helpfulness of my Chinese hosts means that, as soon as it leaves your pocket, it is snatched from you to be inserted, clumsily, into the USB port—nobody does anything slowly or carefully here—often upside down with a lot of damaging wiggling before you can retrieve it and do it yourself.

There is also incomprehension that you need a device to change slides. After all, there are buttons on the computer! In China, you stand behind a lectern, shout into a microphone, and subject your audience to a nonstop barrage of PowerPoint slides. Not my style. I like to be seen, to walk around the stage, and even step off the stage to stand in front of the lectern. My hosts, here and in Taiwan, have warned me that one should not undermine one’s status as an authority figure by such informal behaviour. Again, not my style. I court informality, hate titles and unearned deference, and do my best to undermine these conventions, but they keep inviting me back, so it can’t be upsetting too many people.

I made a fundamental error last night by setting my alarm clock to UK time instead of local time and slept in, which meant no running, little time for breakfast, and then a “set to” with the hotel receptionist who, with translation by Fancy, informed me that, if I had laundry collected today, it should be back tomorrow. I pointed out specific details on the laundry card that clearly stated a 24-hour turnaround if it was collected by 11 a.m. It was 8:45 a.m. “Should” was not good enough, because I was leaving at 6:30 a.m. on Thursday, and my supply of underpants would not last.

“Would I like the express service?” I was asked. “No!” I said, because the laundry card informed me that it was not necessary and was more expensive. There is always a solution here, but it is never “I will do what has been agreed and what you want.” Finally, adding insult to injury, I was told via Fancy that laundry had to be in the laundry bag with laundry card completed. I asked Fancy to translate to the receptionist that 1) I had travelled a lot, frequently used hotel laundries, and knew the system, and 2) I had already referred to the card, which I had duly completed. Also, as I had told her, I had hung the laundry bag for collection on the door handle outside my room. Did she think I had hung my underpants and several pairs of socks, not in a bag, but on the handle?

After the first section of my rant, I think Fancy simply apologised for my behaviour and probably said something to the effect of “Westerners, very rude, aren’t they?” I always travel with carry-on cabin luggage only, no matter how long the trip, so laundry facilities are a constant worry.

To compensate for the lack of a run this morning, I went out this evening for 3.5 miles around Jinan. Several more near-death experiences—one of which left what little hair I have standing on end—convinced me to stop running near the road and go to the local park next time. Motorcyclists here interpret the road-sidewalk distinction in their favour. They also weave in and out of the trees at the edge of the road, so you often end up facing an oncoming motorbike not knowing if it will disappear behind a tree or mow you down. I was glad to see my room again.

Dinner tonight was Chinese hot pot, and I mean hot. Health and safety regulations in the UK would never allow such a thing—a pot of boiling hot water balancing on a flaming pile of carbide. The idea is, you cook your own food in this, and I just cannot relax as I see tables where small children are engaged in dropping in and fishing out their cooked food on a table that is likely to topple and scald the diners. I survived.

Wednesday, the 19th
Hot pots make me nervous.
The past two days have mainly been spent reading, editing, and commenting on manuscripts sent me by master’s students. Despite my occasional lapses into frustration at how things are done in China, I never cease to be amazed at the industry of students here, especially these students. The manuscripts I am reading are the product of one module in their programme, and they all intend to publish in international journals. I had assumed these manuscripts were the outcome of their final dissertations, but discovered they are currently engaged in research for their final dissertations and that these manuscripts are “dress rehearsals,” based on research projects carried out earlier in the programme.

The programmes are long, at least three years. Coming from the UK, where the majority of master’s students no longer carry out empirical work and where many PhD students never publish, the work ethic here is impressive. These are not trivial studies. They are well powered, original, and of considerable clinical- and nursing-workforce relevance.

In the meantime
Back at the ranch (University of Hull), our dean has resigned to take up a clinical post, and the search for a replacement has started—to be appointed in the middle of 2015. Our associate dean for research is on long-term sick leave, and I am acting in her absence.

This week, from a distance, I have been helping to organise colleagues for an upcoming visit by the director of research and development of a major engineering company. They have an interest in health, and I think we can showcase two excellent aspects of our work, one in telehealth, the other an invention related to nasogastric tube positioning. (Patent considerations allow me to say no more.)

The deadline for submitting draft statements in advance of a dress rehearsal is the day after I return from China, so I think I will have to eschew University of Hull guidance that we take a day off following a long-haul flight, in addition to the day before. Such guidelines—I’ve encountered them before—are intended to protect the university in the event that one collapses, either in some far-off place or in one’s office at the university following a long-haul flight, and they are written by people who neither do long-haul flying nor have schedules like mine. I forgot to add that the guideline also advises us to have a day off after arriving at our destination and before leaving. If only!

I take the early train to Beijing tomorrow for the early afternoon flight to London. I leave China at midday and arrive in the UK at 3 p.m. the same day. This will be one of the longest birthdays—20 November, 59 years old—I’ve ever had. My next flight is to Dublin next week, and my next report will be from Puerto Rico in December when I meet Hester C. Klopper, president of the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International, and GAPFON colleagues.

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International. Comments are moderated. Those that promote products or services will not be posted.

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