7 November, 2023: Not Friend, Just Patient

Set in Guangzhou, The People’s Republic of China

As Father was coming into the room, the patient sat up to greet his doctor. Father had treated many a Black man before, but this was the first time he heard one speak such good Cantonese.

『Don’t worry, my doctor. I am doing well. 』

Father grinned.『 You speak Cantonese. 』

『A little. 』

『 You speak so well. 』

As Father’s excitement wore down, he reflected on the oddness of being called ‘my doctor’ as an honorific. The man had a very prominent accent as well, and Father wasn’t sure if he could carry on a conversation beyond the basics. he would have to test it. Father said, 『You are having pain in your pancreas, correct? 』

『Correct. 』

He understood the word for ‘pancreas,’ a word unused in daily conversation. This was a good sign of his conversational abilities. It made Father not only more comfortable in speaking with him; he also came closer towards his bed. Father started his inspection, lightly squeezing the man in his chest area. Immediately the man winced and groaned in anguish. It was hurting on immediate touch, the result of a severe inflammation. Even by touching the pancreas through the skin, Father could tell it was abnormally large.

Father looked through his charts to see what the blood tests showed. 『The alcohol levels in your blood are high. Do you drink a lot? 』

The man did not answer. That was also understood. It was a sensitive topic for most.

So, Father told him a story. 『A lot of men in Guangzhou, they drink too much. Last month, I had a patient. He was from here. He had a horrible liver. We had to search for a new one. The surgery was expensive and difficult. By the end of it, there were tears in his eyes and he was full of gratitude. And yet I saw him this morning on my way to work. He was sitting in the park with a beer bottle in his hand. He was drinking, so happily! 』

The man smiled, but it was hard to make out if it was a smile showing politeness at Father’s effort at conversation or if he understood the story and was laughing in repsonse.

Father asked, 『Where are you from? 』

『Cameroon. 』

Ka Mai Long. Where was that? Was it in Africa? It had to be in Africa. Where else could the man be from? Ka Mai Long. Father said it over and over again in his head. It sounded like something he had memorised once for a test and had since forgotten.

Ka Mai Long.

A land of many treetops.

Green foaming grass.

Unpaved earth.

Mud huts.

Giraffes and wild dogs.

Ka Mai Long.

Father could imagine it.

But Father had no idea if what he was imagining was true to the country at all. This made Father curious. So many questions bubbled up one by one in his mind. First, he wanted to clarify where Cameroon was. Then, he wanted to ask why a man from Cameroon was living in a place like Guangzhou. Had he come with his family? Or had he come for his family? . Guangzhou was the pearl of the south of the country, with big skyscrapers and famous temples all over the city. What was impressive to Father was that since he had come from his village almost forty years ago, the city had changed dramatically. It had developed and grown, and the faces around him had changed. There were so many people from outside China who now called it home, including many people from all over Africa. He hardly talked to such people because they rarely knew any languages from China, so this was his first chance. He could really talk to him, get to know him. More questions brimmed in Father’s mind. How long was he planning to stay here? Would he remain in Guangzhou? Did he have children here? Did they also speak Cantonese or Mandarin?

But then Father remembered that he was a doctor, and this man was his patient.

As Father pretended to continue reading those charts, the patient asked, 『Where are you from? 』

『Shaoguan. 』

『Shaoguan is too nice. 』

『You know Shaoguan? 』

『Yes. I went there traveling. Shaoguan is very beautiful. They have thin mountains. They look like a painting. 』

Father’s eyes lit up. Even though the man had barely described it, he was summoning in front of Father’s eyes the sandstone mountains that bulged out of the mist like fingers curling out of a hand. Of course a foreigner would find it enchanting. So many paintings and poems had been written about the mountains of Danxia.

To be precise, Father came not from the city of Shaoguan but from a village a few kilometres northeast, in the district of Wujiang. Father wanted to ask the patient if he had visited the region, but he doubted it. It wasn’t a tourist attraction. Still Father’s eyes glimmered, knowing that this man from so far away had gotten so much happiness out of a location he had only ever seen as a daily part of life. Even though he didn’t have any sort of attachment to the natural wonders of his province, he felt a moment of inspiration through the genuine praise of his patient’s words.

Father took out his phone. 『Let’s take a selfie. 』

Despite his pain, the patient smiled as the camera snapped, and genuinely so.

Immediately after, though, Father wondered why he had taken the picture. This man was just a patient, not a random person he was meeting at a hot pot restaurant or the bus stop. He explained, more to himself than anyone else, 『You have been to my province. That is nice. I will send the picture to my family. 』

Father’s family was doing poorly due to the decline of his mother’s health, so it was very unlikely he would send it. Still, he felt a little better having at least made an excuse with some sort of logic.

The man asked, 『 How is my pancreas? 』


A corn cob stuck between two gobs of meat.

The absorber of nutrition for our food.

A lifeline of our body.

An organ of great importance.

While Father was entertaining this man, he knew his pancreas was running a risk of failing. So, Father ordered more tests. He asked the man about his residency status and working background to know what treatments he could or could not afford. He talked to the nurse and sent her some of his suggestions with regards to medication. The woman stared at the Black man, seemingly not registering or writing down much of what Father said. He hoped that she would remember it somehow. When she came back, at least she had gotten the right medications, and quite promptly.

It must be hard

Time and time again

To be stared at 

To be recognised

Not because of who you are

But because you look different from us.

Father wanted to say.

But this was a patient and not a friend. Have you eaten? How is your wife? Those were the conversations that friends shared, not details about one’s pancreas.

It was strange. Father wanted to ask this man many things, questions he’d never feel comfortable posing to someone he was close to. Was it because this man was a foreigner? Something about it made Father feel peculiarly comfortable, like he could be as open as much as he wanted to be, and without any consequence.

The man was coughing suddenly. Father checked his throat to ensure that his glands were not swollen. The man had a pungent smell of latex, probably from all the different examinations he had received.

『Do you have nausea? 』

『No. 』

『 Do you have a loss of appetite? 』

『 What? 』

『 You don’t want to eat every day, and it is normal? 』Father explained.

『Sometimes. 』

Father wrote down some notes. He also explained some of the medications to the man. He wasn’t sure whether or not the patient understood, but he was nodding along. To ask if he really understood would be too condescending.

『Your symptoms are serious. Take these medications, once a day, in the morning after eating food. Possibly you need to come back in two months. If it gets worse, you will have to have surgery. Please stop drinking. 』

『 That is hard, 』the man said. Father observed a pain in his eyes. He wondered what was causing it. He had his guesses.

Years away in a foreign land.

Adapting to a new culture.

Too many bills, and no way to pay them.

Parents abroad who needed to be fed, sisters and brothers, too. 

Why China?
Why this strange and unique land?
As a land of opportunity, it was promising.

But no jobs for the youth.

No one buying their exports anymore.

Why China?
Why all these promises?
That would never be fulfilled?

Even for their locals?

Father’s eyes met the patient’s. The patient did not avert his gaze, and neither did Father.

Father said, without thinking, 『 I’m sorry about your pancreas. I’m sorry about my mother, too. My mother is going to die soon. And here I am working so hard, too hard. I used to work hard because my family needed it. But my son left home, and now my wife and I have too much. I work so hard, so hard. You probably work hard, too. But I don’t know what I am working for. 』

『Interesting… 』the patient said. Then he added, with none of the politeness from before, 『 But that has nothing to do with my pancreas. 』

Father immediately dropped his gaze. Why had he said what he had said? It was completely inappropriate, almost embarrassingly personal. Was his mind starting to show signs of dementia? He was in his late sixties; his mind would be losing sharpness soon. Father grew the courage to look towards the man and saw the pain in his face, his swollen eyelids. No, it wasn’t dementia. The truth was Father was this close to wanting to invite this man to his home in the village. He wasn’t dour like the average Chinese person. He still saw the country with newness and wonder. Father imagined him taking photographs with his mother and brothers, giving his family one last chance at a moment of excitement.

Father’s consultation was over. He asked if the man had any questions about the following steps, and the man gave him a fake smile, along with a 『 No, thanks. 』

Father left, shutting the door. He kept his grip on the doorknob, really feeling the metal against his skin. He had made a mistake in sharing too much about himself with this foreigner, but now that this certain border in his mind had been crossed, he was starting to wonder if there was a greater truth in what he had confessed, a truth he never been open enough to share in the private labyrinths of his mind until this very moment.

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