Backed up in China
Posted on May 15, 2016
Jet lag, foreign cuisines and crowded trains: “Traveling and constipation are good bedfellows,” said no one ever, but should have.
It was my fourth day in Beijing without going number two. That’s four days of breakfast, lunch, dinner, some snacks, some drinks, all backed up and getting weird in thirty feet of cramped intestines. I had experienced backups in my travels, but ninety-six hours was ridiculous.
I was visiting China to carry out a rejected Fulbright/National Geographic fellowship. I had intended to spend nine months studying Traditional Chinese Medicine, a broad range of 2,000-year-old medical practices, but when my proposal didn’t make the cut I told my host advisor, Dr. Peicheng Zhang at the Institute for Materia Medica in Beijing, that I was coming anyway.
By the second day in Beijing, I had adjusted to the deep stares my “blue eyes and yellow hair” were attracting, the city’s frenetic pace, weaving mopeds and flashing stores with staff shouting discounts through headset microphones, but the food still vexed me. The dishes I was eating from curbside vendors were going into my body, but not coming out, dropping into a seemingly bottomless pit of tangled noodles.
I was sightseeing when I felt those got-to-go pangs and scurried for a public bathroom. When I reached a stall, I fumbled with my belt and surveyed my surroundings. There was a sharp, foul odor and a glistening yellow stream at my feet, evidence of poor aim. Near the door was a cylindrical trash can topped-off with dirty toilet paper. Since the plumbing in China isn’t robust enough to transport paper, you don’t flush it, you store it. With everyone else’s. I eyed the trash can and imagined what creatures were bedding down in its filthy ecosystem: parasites, bacteria, Velociraptors.
No, I thought. There will be no pooping today.
You might think my GI tract sent side-splitting pain signals to my brain, forcing a bowel movement, despite my mind’s resistance. Perhaps there was a gaseous ejection, a shot across the bow, if you will? Maybe an accident?
No. My brain and bowels concurred.
And I held it.
With such Zen-like control over my colon, I predicted that I could go days, even weeks without defecating. I might never have to go again, I thought, and continued with my fellowship studies.
My Beijing guide was a soft-spoken medicinal chemist named Ziming who met me at my hostel and taxied us to his lab at the Institute for Materia Medica. Waiting for us in Dr. Zhang’s office were watermelon and grapes, which we munched on before Dr. Zhang, a quiet but brilliant man, joined us to discuss his lab’s research that involved extracting and analyzing natural compounds from medicinal plants and herbs.
After the interview, the three of us joined other postdocs at the communal ping pong table, where Ziming, paddle in hand, told me that he had read my Fulbright proposal and said he would be honored to take me to pharmacies, hospitals, institutes and universities that practiced or studied Traditional Chinese Medicine.
The Zhang lab took me out to dinner for traditional Beijing cuisine later that night. We used hot water to wash our chopsticks and plates, and then the table filled with white rice, vegetables and various meats, followed by the main dish: succulent Peking duck, which was crispy on the outside, juicy on inside, and came with the warning, “Once bitten, forever smitten.”
I spent two more days crisscrossing Beijing with Ziming, visiting Tongrentang, a traditional herbal pharmacy, and then the Hospital of Acupuncture of Moxibustion, where I underwent acupuncture with a traditional doctor.
I said goodbye to the Zhang lab and was waiting for a train in a crowded terminal when I realized that my insides had become bunched-up like the travelers around me vying for exits. I admitted that there was nothing Zen about my perceived control over my bowels. Like everyone else, I was a slave to the meals I had eaten 48 hours prior.
Truth be told, Nature had been calling all along, and I wasn’t going because I was afraid: Of the parasites, the bacteria, the Raptors. I knew the constipation had to stop and the train station was my Waterloo.
I hustled into the station’s bathroom, opened a stall door and locked eyes with a Chinese man hovering over a squat toilet. He glanced up from his cell phone, a cigarette dangling from his lips, a blank expression on his face. Oops, sorry. The next stall was vacant and I squeezed my 40-pound backpack into the narrow space.
I hung my pack on the door and frowned at the trash can. As I took a deep breath, I told myself there weren’t prehistoric beasts scratching at the trash can’s interior. I hovered over the squat toilet and reminded myself that the only poop to fear was poop itself.
And I went.
I took a seat on the train, a decidedly lighter human being, and watched the countryside rush by until I arrived five hours later in Xi’an in Central China. As I walked the city’s Muslim Quarter, I thought about Chinese medicine, which is based on the notion of harmony and balance. I had been out of balance in Beijing – and backed up as a result. Perhaps it was jetlag, or the city’s wild pace, or the stress of the reporting duties I had imposed on myself as a writer. Either way, I was intent on regaining my balance and decided to avoid major cities for the next two weeks. I continued south by train, trading the city’s congested alleyways for the wide open spaces of the Yunnan Provence.
In China’s Guangxi region, I avoided a bus from Guilin to Yangshuo, opting instead to float down the Li River on a bamboo raft. On the shuttle bus to the river, I was tapped on the shoulder by Jenny, a third-year college student from the Guangdong province. We chatted through slow, choppy English and became fast friends. We shared a bamboo raft and gazed in awe at the breathtaking karst peaks hugging the tranquil Li River.
From the raft, Jenny and I watched fishermen snag fish with cormorants. We took pictures atop the 600-year-old Dragon Bridge. Later, we spent the night strolling through the buzzing streets of Yangshuo. My stomach grumbled as restaurant staff hounded us along walkways, pointing at enticing dishes on laminated menus, which displayed main courses of fish stews brewed in spices and vegetables.
“Maybe we take a table?” Jenny offered.
“Absolutely,” I said.