Sunday, June 29, 2008

Day Two - Cermonies and Food

We are staying in a hotel called The Foreign Experts Hotel. Today is a very formal day – meetings with government and medical officials that are choreographed and very ceremonial. Our title, EXPERTS, is very high in this society. There are photographs on the wall, next to the VIP dining room, of Chairman Mao greeting foreign “experts.” For this meeting there is a printed agenda, which reads:

5:20 Chinese hosts are received into the meeting room.
5:30 Foreign guests are received into the meeting room.
5:40 Both parties sit down, the meeting begins
5:40- 5:45 Deputy General Director [name removed here] invites President McSherry to introduce the foreign experts.
5:45-5:50 President McSherry introduces foreign experts
5:50 The Deputy General Director introduces[ their government organizations]
And so on until.
6:10 Gifts handing over to foreign guests
6:30 -6:40 take photos
6:40-8 banquet. End of meeting

We sit in large arm chairs around a big room, each chair next to a little table with our name plates in English and Chinese (I am pleased to see how my name looked in the host language) and hot tea ceremoniall poured by pretty young people. No one drinks the tea. It is only for the ceremony of serving it. There are American and Chinese flags by the hosts.

The dinner consists of nine courses. Each is delicious. I will write the menu, but I am given vegetables at each of the meat, chicken, and, fish courses, as is vegetarian Tom McSherry. Very considerate.

Menu, in English and Chinese:

Cold Dish, Pumpkin With Ling fish soup, Braised Abalone and shrimp with oyster sauce, Stir Fried Fish with sauce, Beefsteak, Braised Duck with Bamboo Shoots, Stir-fried vegetables, Desert and fruit, Hoptoad’s ovaty [sic] and tomato.

I don’t even want to guess what the last one is, but it does have frog’s something in it. I just am served the tomato. It is sweetened, diced and iced and very refreshing. There is so much food, we are all logy and go immediately to bed, which means, of course that we wake up at 4am. Helena, my doctor-sponsor, arrived mid-day and is sharing my room. When we awaken, we talk and talk. .

Everyone here has been very gracious. They are desirous to create programs that are the most efficient and useful they can be. Because we have a clean slate to work with, (psychological services have heretofore been sparse in this culture), they can design something that is not patchwork. This is, in a way, refreshing -- distinctly different from places in which rescue and trauma relief projects proliferate and, Topsy-like, multiply The government has the ability to approve programs, but it doesn’t execute them, and so Dr. Helena Guo has been advising the largest psychological institute here about what programs to include and how to integrate them. She believes in Verbal First Aid and has arranged to keep me over, after the presentations, so that I can meet with and work with front-line crisis call centers.

The skies are heavy. So much rain here. It is the rains that caused the flooding after the earthquakes that dislocated millions. Weather is big news across the world, just as the global warming experts warned and Rush Limbaugh pooh-poohed.

There's a good chance of international media coverage for these events. I'll keep you posted. "Posted" - this far away from my home turf and I still can't keep away from puns!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Day One of my Trip to China

The Flight to San Francisco

I have to fly from Los Angeles to San Francisco to meet my United Air Lines flight to Beijing. The day before my trip, United lays off 900 pilots. As he takes me to the airport, Harry jokes that as part of the new austerity, there will only be one pilot to fly the plane to China, instead of the normal crew, so the passengers will have to sing their way across, to keep the pilot awake! I am only mildly amused.

I am a vegan, a vegetarian when necessary, and these two facts collide as I stand in the check in line for my flight. I travel quite a bit, but somehow didn’t realize that my jar of peanut butter will be confiscated. As the airport security guard tosses it into a mounting bin of shaving cream canisters and large tooth paste tubes, I say, “I’m a vegan. There’s nothing on the plane for me to eat!” She shrugs, “I don’t think that United has food for anyone, anymore.”

Stripped of shoes, jacket, earrings -- waiting to board the plane, I wonder why we are still using this bulky, seemingly antiquated means of travel. The thought that comes to mind is where is Captain Kirk when you need him?

We board and, having anticipated that the airline might lose my luggage, I have packed all my necessities for a trip to the other side of the world into a carry on bag that weighs more than one of the small elephants on the Nature channel we will soon be watching. I can’t seem to lift it to place it in the overhead, when a Chinese man takes it from me and accomplishes the task. I say, “Thank you,” and sit down, now searching my purse for the seven Chinese phrases I should have memorized for just such an occasion.

The woman across the aisle is reading a best-selling book about a dying man’s Last Lecture. There is a photograph on the page to which the book is open. It is of Captain Kirk.

Shay Sheh means thank you. Shay Sheh.

My spiritual teacher, Janis Taylor, who was told not to take her final Buddhist priestly vows but to remain out in the world, has told me my mission is to bring “my light” to China, even more than information. My friend and healer, Melissa, concurs. I hope so, as the irony becomes more apparent high in the air as we skirt the California coast. In a literal, three-dimensional sense, my challenge seems nearly impossible. I am invited to teach the power of words and images—language—for healing in emergencies like earthquakes, to people whose language I don’t speak. Subtlety is crucial in my field of crisis expertise: Verbal First Aid. The difference in English between the negative-tinged “don’t be afraid,” and the positive “you can feel safe” is pivotal. I’ll never even know if my message makes sense and if so, whether it’s accomplished.

I miss Harry so much. He thinks he misses me more because there is a void in our home where I used to be, but I want my best friend with me to charge my “light” with his warm love, or even just hold my hand in his big, earthy one.

Learning phrases of a language is a very tricky business. By asking “how much,” in Chinese, you might momentarily convince a sales person that you actually want an answer in Chinese. But this will only result in you making a bigger fool of yourself than if you’d just tipped your hand in the beginning. And yet there is something honoring, something that also endears you to people who find you amusing for trying.

I sit next to a young Chinese woman who turns out to be a tour guide for the “maiden voyage”—that’s what it says on her flag with which she leads the 19 people in her charge—of a tour through Washington, DC, New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and next, San Francisco. We chat, I practice my phrases. She asks about my trip and I tell her.

As we land, I rise to reach up for my bag and the gentleman again comes to my aid. This time I say “Shay sheh.” And he smiles. Then the tour guide jumps up and announces in Chinese that I am going to China to help with the earthquake aftermath. Nineteen people applaud. They ask if I am a medical doctor. I say I train psychologists. They nod in approval. They whip out cameras. Flashes go off. Monentarily I feel like Angelina Jolie. I turn to my new friend and say, “I haven’t done anything, yet,” trying to clarify that I am unworthy of such adoration. “They appreciate you,” she says. They tell her in Chinese to give me something. It is a pin with a picture of a cat on in. It is just a token someone had given her, probably from the streets of DC. I say thank you, Shay sheh, I will keep it for luck. Then they, one by one, want their pictures taken with me. I get off the plane in a daze and find the international terminal. Now I will have to really, actually try to earn some of that appreciation.

Flight to China
Twelve hours. Three (vegan) meals. A nice companion who explains to me, when I tell her the story of the tour, that these are, indeed, maiden voyages, the Chinese government having been afraid, before now, to allow people to tour the US because they might defect. I guess with the balance of money and prosperity and freedom changing, the risk is no longer great. Not having arrived yet, I don’t know whether the US will have to worry in reverse.

She also explains that people in China by and large see physical illness as something that happens, but mental illness as your own fault—thinking badly, thinking the wrong thoughts, thinking too much—and therefore do not discuss it or seek out psychological help. Even the books, she says, that they read are practical—you learn how to make something; you learn math—never self-help, which is considered, “just talk.”

You never see handicapped people, she said. They are hidden away, out of shame. When she first came to America, she was amazed at how many handicapped people there were, until she realized that the difference is that they are among us, they are us.

She said the earthquake was so painful because of the only child rule. There is a saying that white hair should say goodbye to black hair, that you should not be burying your children. She has heard of people planning to have another child and naming it after the one who was lost. This seems almost crippling to the second one even before it enters this world. So much pain all around.

Speaking of pain, towards the end of the flight I’ve begun to have a headache that threatens to become a migraine. I remembered what our good friend Elmer Green, father of biofeedback discovered as a research scientist at Menninger. If you can imagine warming your hands, really picture them becoming hot, blood moves there from the brain and releases the headache. I try. My hands are freezing. It doesn’t work. I give up. I begin to pray, for relief, that I’ll do a good job, that I’ll be guided and helped along my way. I put my hands together over my heart. The air coming in from the vents above chills me and I pull my raincoat over me. Suddenly I notice my hands becoming hotter and hotter against each other, nearly glowing. The headache snaps. I breathe, grateful. Grateful.

The airport in Beijing is bathed in Olympic signage, their cartoon character icons alive and dancing on screens everywhere. All signs are bilingual, Chinese and English, which, it seems, is truly the universal language—thank you internet. I am picked up quickly, but learn that the doctor, Helena Guo, who has summoned me here and promised never to leave my side will not arrive for another day (she was in Seattle this week), as her plane has been grounded for mechanical difficulties. That’s nothing compared to the navigational difficulties I anticipate without her.

There are others in our party, Tom McCherry, who is President of the International Critical Incident Stress Management Foundation and Becky Stoll, who is on their board. Two others will arrive tomorrow. I fear they might perceive me as an upstart, their having been in this business for 20 years.

And so the real work begins.

Evening of the First Day

We think we’ll be able to get some sleep, having been up some 24 hours, but we are invited to a fund raising event featuring the major television personality—a beautiful young woman—as well as movie stars and important government officials.

It is in a large auditorium in an art-centered area, with 2 hours of speeches in Chinese which we, sleepy beings that we are, wouldn’t be able to understand even if we were fully conscious. The speeches are followed by an auction that raises millions. I have to go to the bathroom and discover, in the stalls, that there is a porcelain hole in the floor [toilet-shock!] and no paper. I decide I don’t have to go to the bathroom.

The grand finale is an operatic finish. A man and a woman stand stiffly and dramatically on stage. Music and choral singing from a recording play and the couple individually fill in certain parts. His voice is high and odd to our ears. Hers higher and nasal. The formal tones of the recording and their singing along seems oddly comical to me. And it shouldn’t. Perhaps it’s the fatigue. Special effects produce light bubbles. The word “love” is spelled out in Chinese in pieces by various officials. “For love” appears in the Chinese logo in English.

It seems as though the earthquake has so shaken up this country, moved it from acquisition and “progress” -- to remembering community. In that, it is very touching and optimistic – harbinger of the new paradigm that I believe is on the way.

We finally get to our rooms for the night. We’ve discovered that the rooms are austere. As Tom McCherry says, “the difference between the bed and the floor is the sheet.” Bed-shock. None of us care. There is actually a toilet in each of the rooms. And paper. I shower, brush my teeth and, 29 hours since my day began, I proceed to lie sleepless for an hour, before slumber finally arrives.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The night before leaving

In the breathtaking way that everything seems to be happening these days--likely to you, as well, and asking different things of us than we ever expected--I am leaving for China at the break of dawn tomorrow, June 27th, 2008.

It is expected that I will come with Power Point Program in hand, to address an assembly of government minsters, doctors, social workers, teachers in Beijing who are looking for "best practices" in the world of critical stress incident management. Their quest, I imagine, is largely as a result of the devastating earthquakes and floods that have hit Sichuan and killed some 70,000 people, displacing an unimaginable 15 million human beings.

I have been invited because I co-authored a book (with Judith Acosta) called The Worst Is Over: What To Say When Every Moment Counts, and because we have developed a protocol called Verbal First Aid, how to speak in medical emergences and crises to change the trajectory of recovery. Dr. Helena Guo encountered the book and tracked me down, always having in her mind such a conference. Beyond that, she wants me to visit the site, train crisis counselors who must deal with distraught survivors, and more.

So, with great expectations, and even greater hopes, I pack my bags, leave peanut butter for my loving, starving artist husband, the poet Harry Youtt, and take off. I will write as I can. Feel free to express yourself with aid, comfort, wisdom, or humor.