I met Mr. E at a poetry reading. Hong Kong’s literary scene is small and two Americans reading in one evening was an unusual event. We became Facebook friends, generally “liking” the same local literary events and book launches.
I start my mornings by casually and quickly scanning a few of the Facebook updates that randomly show up in my feed, photos of babies dressed like adults, dogs dressed like rabbits and of fancy food arranged like farm animals fill my screen. But on that morning, I also happen to stumble upon a cancer journal, written by a man I have only met once. “Sorry to hear you are ill,” I write, “best wishes for a speedy recovery.”
Several months pass. As I yell at my children to get ready for school, shouting out orders to them to remember their homework, their library books, their snacks and their PE uniforms, I happen to glance at the feed:
“If anyone is reading this, I have not been able to brush my teeth for a week. I am in hospital again and bedridden. I am desperate for toothpaste, a toothbrush, shaving cream and a razor. To be transferred today. No phone and no WiFi.”
“I will be there this afternoon,” I type.
I casually mention to my husband that I need to stop by the hospital this afternoon but I first need to do a bit of shopping for food and toiletries because a plea for a toothbrush seems like a very simple request.
“Is he from the Synagogue?” my husband asks. “Where are his friends? His family?”
I only know that he is American, not Jewish, in his late sixties and divorced. He is ill and alone and needs a toothbrush, I explain.
I arrive at the Chinese public hospital later that day. I have never been to a local public hospital before or truth be told, in any public hospital ever.
No one speaks English. All I have is a surname and a first name scribbled on a piece of paper and a large plastic container with assorted basic goods and snacks.
I am not sure where the main reception is or if there even is one. The facility seems to be a number of small buildings labeled in Chinese with a single English letter on them, with no particular significance and in no particular order.
After wandering in circles, I stand somewhere in the center of it all, near an ambulance dock and I decide that calling the main number would be my best bet.
It takes several call transfers until they are able to find an English speaker for me. I am fairly certain now that I need to go to Ward C, 4th floor.
Ward C has a tiny hectic nurse’s station tucked in the corner. Otherwise it is a giant space dotted with countless beds and older men. It is crowded, yet lonely and cold, sterile.
“I am here to see my friend,” I tell the nurse. Though this is a half-truth. If my husband found it hard to understand what compelled me to do this today, I thought, explaining it to a nurse who doesn’t share a common language with me would be near impossible.
“Visiting hour not now. You too early. One and one half hours after,” she states, staring at me intently, assuming I am lost. I look at her and then around me. Will I really come back here? “But you it ok. See friend now,” she orders.
It’s a small and strange unwritten rule in Hong Kong – a gweillo (white ghost, white devil, foreigner) is somehow not bound by the same set of rules as everyone else.
“M’goi, M’goi (thank you),” I respond hesitantly, almost wishing for a second that they had sent me away. Ward C doesn’t seem very inviting. “Does anyone leave Ward C?” I wonder to myself.
Privacy is a foreign concept here, as are warmth and comfort. There are no dividers, rooms or curtains. The numbers on the beds are the only distinguishing features to mark one row from the next.
I reach Mr. E’s bed. His eyes are shut. I fumble through my purse to find a piece of paper and a pen and decide I should leave the bag as well as my number in case he needs anything else. There are no personal items in sight save for a tattered paperback book. I squeeze myself between two beds while I write and occasionally glance up and smile at the elderly pajamaed Chinese men staring at me.