It was with the sentiment of new beginnings in Spring that I set out on Saturday night to indulge myself in exercise. Being half-way through my bet with the Devil (and May) that I could lose 10kg before I left for home, I wanted to take my diet to the next step: I wanted to exercise. So May, her roommate, Winnow, and I decided to play some badminton at the sports arena a few steps from our campus.
Now, I am not exceptionally good at this largely Asian sport, but I have found that, given roughly thirty minutes practice, I become nimble enough to contend with the mediocre-est of players. My reflex-time, however, needs a somewhat greater head-start, so I'm nowhere near "good." The girls assured me their level was relatively the same, so I accepted with great delight.
It's Chinese custom to eat before exercising (which goes against my mother's "wait sixty minutes" rule---a sin of conscience I must learn to justify). The girls and I, thus, decided to eat at one of the many small restaurants on the street near our school.
Being towards the end of May, the rainy season had already begun. No less than an hour before, we had witnessed near-typhoon winds; clouds billowing faster than I had ever seen them; bikes and boards strewn everywhere around campus; an inch of rain in twenty minutes. It was a miniature storm, devastating if longer, and one we luckily get to see at the same time every afternoon for a period of several weeks every Spring in Hainan.
Thus the air was crisp and fresh, the smell of cool rain quickly replacing that of hot, wet pavement. We had each come prepared, dressed in our latest sports fashions. I had donned two halves of the uniforms my basketball team gave me in December---white top, red bottoms, both number ten. We carried our rackets in their cases. We looked professional.
The three of us sat down outside the first restaurant we'd come to. This particular restaurant makes a pretty mean plate of pork and greens, without all the excess oil of their neighbors to the right. We'd enjoyed this place on many occasions, and were happy to partake again.
The waitress brought out our menus and a fresh pot of tea. The busboy gave us our dishes using a set of tongs, pulling each individually out of a large bowl of boiling water, assuring us of their sanitation. The dishes included a bowl for rice, a slightly smaller bowl for food, an even smaller bowl for sauce and a spoon, all ceramic. What they didn't have, however, were teacups (a small pet-peeve of mine). But, not to worry: the chopstick holder in the center of the table also comes equipped with toilet paper for napkins, and cheap plastic cups for tea. Hallelujah, my Americanized need for liquid during a meal could be satisfied yet.
I poured some tea for Winnow and myself into the cheap plastic cups, steam clouding the insides before the piping hot tea even hit the bottom. The cups did little to insulate the heat from touch (which is why I prefer ceramic), so I waited to drink while May ordered our food.
The waitress left. I saw Winnow take a small sip of tea, so I figured it was safe enough to drink. Not wanting the paper thin plastic to burn my hand, I attempted to pick it up with four fingers around the brim. Now whether or not I "should have known better" is irrelevant, because what happened next, I believe, could have happened to anyone. The cup collapsed in my fingers, and the boiling hot tea spilled directly and entirely onto my lap. I imagine that most of you reading this have studied anatomy, or seen pictures of the male body, or, quite possibly, have even looked at yourself in the mirror. No matter how you learned, you probably know that the lap of every man contains a part, generally in the center, that is more sensitive than most other parts of the body. If God had seen fit to give this special part a tag, mine would probably have read:
100% Flesh (Peau/Tiel)
Made in U.S.A. (Fabrique aux Etats-Unis. Hecho en E.U.A.)
Hand wash only. Wash in warm water. Wash before using. Do not bleach.
The sad state of affairs, though, is that He did not give us such tags, leaving us to decide proper care for ourselves, and, in turn, to teach such care to our children and our children's children. And having done so for ages, we mortals have concluded that it's not wise to put lava-hot water onto one's genitalia.
I remember what happened at that moment with striking clarity---as if it all happened in slow motion, though at the time, it seemed to have been in fast-forward.
The water was on me, and I leaped out of my chair. The girls, the poor dears, laughed, thinking it was just one of those dinner-time mishaps and, "Hee-hee! Elliot's going to have water on his shorts all night!" But laughter was not in my heart.
It stung, as you might expect, and I tried to walk it off as if it had been ice-cold water. But it wasn't ice water, and the stinging did not go away. In fact, its persistence was paramount, and the stinging sensation quickly turned into a burning---a burning that felt as though I had not just spilled a small cup of hot tea onto my Little Chairman, but had rather rested him into the pot and held him there.
Walking it off did not seem to work, so I tried another maneuver. I went to the small store across the street and sat beside a tree. Perhaps a lack of movement would settle the fire down. It didn't, of course, and my mind wandered to the next bright idea.
A broom leaned against the tree beside me. I picked it up and gripped it tight, like the strip of leather soldiers grit in their teeth when getting surgery without anesthetic. Gripping it did nothing, so I tried bending (this, perhaps, gives you an idea of the veritable numbing of mind that occurs when something of this proportion happens---almost like a weak state of shock). The broom broke (attributed to the adrenaline, I suppose), and I got up to find my next best answer.
Cold water begged me from the glass refrigerators in the store, but I had left my wallet on the table, and there's no way I could call either of the girls over. The only words my mind and mouth could agree on forming were words memorized through constant use. Some might call them "obscenities," others "slang," but no matter your preference, they're the only words simple enough for your mind to understand in a situation like that (like a brand new computer being shocked back to DOS, if that’s even a fitting description).
I tried a prayer, but all I could get out was His name (which I suppose is a good instance of Romans 8:26, "Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.")
It was pure, unadulterated pain, and I had no relief. My weakening brain was quickly running out of options, so as my last resort, I started looking for a bathroom.
In the backs streets of every city in China are hundreds of grade-, middle- and high-schools. This area was no exception. I found a gated middle-school as I wandered the streets, unable to speak, and I staggered in, hoping to find an open bathroom. The school grounds were empty, much to my relief, for I had not yet even taken a glance at my vicinity of pain. So once beyond the stone walls, I checked myself.
Red. That's all I could see at this point was red---though I knew that beneath that red (or above or throughout) was a transformation that was going to make me a very unpleasant man for some time to come.
I kept my shorts stretched out to give the Chairman a little breathing room (and to cut down on abrasion), and continued to search for the bathroom. Finally, behind some foliage and completely out of view of any tall building or classroom windows, I found it. I stepped into the male half of the small structure, walking immediately to the faucet. To my utter dismay and horror, I found nothing in the tap. The water had had been shut off.
It was at this point that I left my traditional masculinity behind and wept. There, alone in the dark, empty toilet of a poor Chinese middle school with my loins ablaze and nothing around to soothe, I wept great heaves.
The crying was a release, to be sure, but nothing near comfort. It released the shock of the situation, and brought a sense of clarity back to my mind which I had lost over the course of the last ten minutes. Then I began to remember. I remembered May and Winnow, still waiting for me, unsure of what pain I really was in. I remembered my phone, still sitting on the table I had, unusable now to call and inform them that I needed some serious medical attention. I remembered the rainstorm and the puddles I had stepped through to get here. And this was the memory that saved me.
Immediately, I rushed out of the bathroom, looking for the deepest, clearest puddle I could find. There on the path between the boys and girls toilets was a puddle half an inch deep. I cupped my hands into the water, stretched out my shorts and poured. The briefest instance of release came. For two seconds, I felt relieved of the fire on my skin. I cupped and poured again. Cupped and poured. Cupped and poured. Cupped and poured. All throughout, I was surprised to find myself thinking of the rich man in Hell, asking for just a drop of water on his tongue from Lazarus' finger. I had never pictured that from his head to his toes (and everywhere in between) the rich man was burning, and all he wanted was a drop of relief. And that's where I was now, dipping my hand into a filthy, muddy puddle, giving myself relief (though not quite "relieving myself"---which, by the way, was a future necessity that terrified me).
Roughly twenty-five minutes after the incident occurred, I managed to muddle up enough energy and courage to walk myself back through the streets to the restaurant and get the girls to take me to a clinic. It was difficult going. Again, I wasn't about to walk down the street with open pants, and I needed to look as nonchalant as I could as I re-trod the many steps I'd taken in my blank-minded state to get wherever I was.
The abrasive motion of walking back to the girls gave me a sense of what it must feel like to grind with a cinder-block all night long. My only outlet was to chew hard on the shoulder of my jersey. This did not suffice, and by the time I came within sight of the restaurant again, by the time May saw me and ran, panic-stricken, to my side, I was back in tears.
She was worried that I didn't have my phone, that I walked off and they didn't know where to. She was worried that this was more serious than she and Winnow had first imagined. And all I could say was, "Ow."
She told me she would take me to the hospital. Winnow's boyfriend's father has a clinic, and they'll take me there. I couldn't not express it at the time, but I was overjoyed.
We walked, slowly, back towards the school where the taxi's waited. Now that I had my wallet in hand, I bought myself a large bottle of cold water, took a sip, and poured the rest, little by little, down my pants. I can imagine what the passersby at the school may have thought: a large, white foreigner with tears in his eyes, chewing on his basketball jersey, pouring water down his pants. (Perhaps I won't get the job here after all.)
Finally, we got into the taxi and made our way to the clinic. I couldn't yet speak, but tried to give Winston a head's up via text on the situation. Of course, at the height of emotional duress, clarity is a "maybe," so my first message to him didn't make all that much sense. It read: I just snore got water on my duck and am going to the hospital. I believe I meant to say, "I just poured hot water on my” etc. I don't rightly remember.
We arrived at the clinic, a relatively small, open area with twenty or so chairs lined up here and there for IV patients (Chinese medicine always calls for injection, no matter the ailment, with few alternative options). We had to wait for Doctor Zhang (whom we had called from his home), so I asked May if she could purchase me another bottle of water. The angel did so, and I continued to pour.
Once in the clinic, I had mustered up the courage to hold my pants open without concern. This willingness proved helpful in preparing me for much more openness later on.
Doctor Zhang, a short man of about sixty with big glasses, arrived and saw me pouring the water. He told me that putting so much cold water on the burn was a bad idea. I am not sure if this was something Chinese (the Chinese "yin and yang" separates everything in the world into either hot or cold, and an improper mixture of the two can have grave effects), but I have to honestly say that, were I in the same situation right now, I would ignore that doctor's order, as good as he is, and pour, pour, pour.
Doctor Zhang then directed me to a private maternity room upstairs. He promptly turned on a large operating light and, with nurse by his side and May by mine, told me to lower my shorts. I think I had already drained myself of all shame in the last forty minutes, so obeying this request was as easy as breaking a broomstick. I cannot explain the sensation I had when I dropped my shorts while finally inside a clinic. I can now say, however, that if "yin and yang" were up to me, I would promote the mixture of a burn and a hot lamp also as having adverse effects.
[In order to continue this story with as much tact as possible, I will now allegorize the next few events to the tune of Tolkien's The Return of the King .
Doctor Zhang is Frodo Baggins.
The nurse is Sam Gamgee.
The Chairman is Mt Doom.
I am Mordor.]
Sam and Frodo reached the foot of Mount Doom, on its northernmost side and a little to the westward.
"Mr. Frodo," muttered Sam. "You see all that brush, Mr. Frodo? We can't see the mountain what for all that brush."
"You're right, Sam, dear," replied Frodo. "We'll have to clear away the brush before we can ever really get to Mount Doom."
Frodo unsheathed Sting from his waist and began to cut deep at the brush. Never before had a hobbit cleared away the brush of Mordor, especially that at the foot of Mount Doom.
At that moment, Sam felt a tremor in the ground beneath him, and heard or sensed a deep remote rumble as of thunder imprisoned under the earth.
Frodo and Sting continued to cut, to clear, to carry themselves ever closer to the heat of Mount Doom. Frodo cut carelessly, and Sting scraped the ground of Mordor.
"There I hear the moans of Mordor again, Mr. Frodo," Sam cried. "I fear he's gonna break beneath our hairy little feet!"
"No, Sam!" said Frodo in a poisonous rage. "I must continue cutting! I must! I must, Sam! I must!"
Once Dr. Zhang completed this process, he cleaned "Mount Doom" with a purple liquid I think may have been a form of iodine. Once this dried, he then applied a Chinese medical cream, brown in color and smelling, oddly, like Ramen noodles (beef and mushroom flavor).
The pain had not yet subsided, and in fact worsened with the application of cleansing and curing creams. As a result, the doctor ordered a pain killer to be injected into my bum. My entire backside went painfully numb for about thirty seconds, and then transformed into an intense soreness. The pain in the front still raged.
May continued by my side, holding my hand, whispering to me. The nurse covered me with a sheet for the sake of decency, then left us alone.
Because the doctor feared infection, he asked that fresh clothes be brought to me. Winston was the only person who could do this for me, so finally May called him up.
He was still a bit confused about my text message, not quite sure what was going on. But after a little explanation, he understood and came as quickly as he could.
While we waited for him to arrive, I felt the pain ease and the medication cool. The doctor instructed me in how to take care of myself over the next several days. He told me how to clean and medicate the wound, and also offered four different kinds of pills to reduce the chances of infection and pain.
All in all, the ordeal at the clinic was a strange one. I could say, "I wouldn't trade it for anything," but in this instance I'm a realist, and I would. I would trade it by having Winston and I switch places. If he were the one who got burned, and I were the one standing by and watching, I think I could have gotten as much out of that experience as I did from this. But, the past is past, and who am I to complain?
The best news to come out of this, of course, is that I was able to stay home from teaching the entire following week. Every class I missed was out of an honest concern for my health and comfort---this being evidenced by my inability to wear pants over the course of the next three days. Thankfully, Winston was a real sport. Were anyone to come into the house during that time and visit, they would have had one thought on their mind: "My, Elliot is most un-gifted at the game of strip-Scrabble!"
But visitors were few-to-none during those days, and I was able to spend a majority of that time studying Chinese, reading, and watching old episodes of The X-Files. I took care of myself then and still do.
Coming away from the "incident involving tea," I wear a few reminders that carelessness can sometimes cause pain. One of these reminders is the burn I have on my inner thigh. It's a large burn, and one that may or may not scar me for the rest of my life. But today it's there, and today I can see its shape: that of a tall boxy-headed alien drinking a Coke. Perhaps it God's sense of humor, or perhaps it's nothing but my mind filled with The X-Files. But for whatever the reason for its existence, no matter. It's meaning is the same no matter how you spin it: highly-intelligent life forms recommend cold drinks.