Edie with Yi dancers
As Lesley and Freda freeze in frigid Beijing, Edie and I were suffering today in Simao's coldest weather for months (18 degrees C max!). Unfortunately the grey skies and breezy conditions coincided with the opening of the 2nd Yunnan Nationality Costume and Accessories Festival in downtown Simao. We went along for a gander. There was a lot of "minzu" action, and of course we (or rather Edie) provided plenty of photo opportunities for the locals. It didn't feel so bad getting the camera out and shooting back!

Hani woman
We watched Hani women sewing embroidery and Hani men doing something with cotton. There was a lot of weaving and spinning going on, and the hard sell was on for loads of colourful ethnic bags, clothing, jewellery and tea products (we came away with some Aini (Akha, Xishuangbanna Hani) stuff - a shoulder bag, chopstick pouch and a free necklace for Edie). Minority culture is big business in Yunnan, and the local government stenuously supports the local minority groups developing a tourist industry. This is mostly for the domestic market -most Han generally find these exotic border peoples fascinatingly backward, unaccountably dirty and even slightly scary (esp. Tibetans!). Places like Lijiang and Jinghong have, in the last few years, turned into incredibly tacky, inauthentic theme parks. But it certainly brings the money into otherwise economically disadvantaged areas.

Aini girl
Yao spinners
We had a very constructive consultation with Dr Lianlian Wang, a gastroenterologist with a clinic at the International Hong Kong Medical Centre. It was different to yesterday's consultation in that she asked a few pertinent and answerable questions, listened to and apparently believed the answers, made comprehensive notes and gave Freda a thorough physical examination. She concluded that she had no concerns about Freda's abdomen or organs down that way and ordered a few blood tests. The gluten intolerance test, which she agreed was worth investigating, will take a week. Meantime the quicker tests have ruled out any bacteria infection and her blood cell count is normal. Great news. We're still not much further on than we were in Simao, except that we've been able to talk to someone about Freda's health in English and feel happy that all likely avenues are being explored. What's more, she didn't come up with any suggestions that we hadn't yet considered. The burning question now is what we do for a week. Should we snuggle up in our hotel room, work and study in the VSO Programme Office or head off on a train journey round the North. A month or two later and it would be perfect timing for the Harbin ice festival. Enjoyable as it would be to see the giant ice sculptures in real life, let's hope we get some answers before then.

It's not a great photo but it's the best 'evidence' we could get that we were within a stone's throw distance of the the American President. As we emerged from the Metro to return to our hotel we noticed that both sides of the main road (6 lanes wide) were closed to traffic. There have been police, guards and 'volunteers' patrolling this section of town since we arrived but uniforms had quadrupled for this evening. A few minutes later the first car in the entourage [see photo for some representative vehicles!] passed, followed by about thirty others, either black or white, with the Presidential limo near the front flying a Chinese and an American flag. The latter was on the right. Is that symbolic? For a moment we panicked he was heading for our  Seven-Eleven store, preventing us from picking up a Chinese takeaway. Fortunately he was opting for a Sizzler steak. Why not good old Beijing baozi (steamed dumplings)? Either Hu Jintao is looking for an excuse to go Western or Mr Obama also has a gluten intolerance.

Nearing the end of her tether...
We have both good and bad news, depending on where you live. The good news is that the local Simao doctors are pretty good at dealing with basic gastric problems. If you're worried about having some nasty intestinal bacteria or tropical disease, best to visit Simao's ren min yi yuan (People's Hospital). The bad news is that we had to travel several thousand miles to discover this. Fortunately for us VSO medical insurers paid for the 400 RMB consultation fee. The good news? The Bayley & Jackson paediatrician (who shall remain anonymous, thanks to the face mask) knows of a gastroenterologist who has a clinic at the even-more-expensive Hong Kong International Hospital. We have a 9 o'clock appointment, which means joining the tens of thousands of commuters on the Beijing Metro.

The consultation was interesting. I guess my last encounter with B&J left me slightly sceptical of their general professionalism. Given that it was 18 months ago, however, I was hoping things had changed. Only slightly. Although I was reasonably happy that this was a doctor (the last person I saw was a private practitioner who was forced to squeeze into a white coat for appearances) we spent an hour going in circles. I presented all of Freda's symptoms and tried to avoid mentioning any of our own specific ideas/concerns. Who am I to say? As it happens, given the fabulous advice and support we have had from VSO London Medical Unit and another UK doctor, it seems I was better equiped to guide the consultation than I thought. In fact, after 45 minutes I ended up whipping out an email with the information on the basic tests for coeliac, basically a gluten intolerance. I'll give you some snippets...

[after 20 minutes of describing the symptoms and Freda's medical history]
Doctor: Over the last 3 months, while Freda has had diarrhoea, has she ever had a fever?
Lesley: No, never.
Doctor: Really? Are you sure? No fever?
Lesley: Really, it's always the first thing we check. No fever.
Doctor: That's strange.

Doctor: Has Freda been innoculated against TB? It's not done in many European countries but in China we give it to babies.
Lesley: Yes, she was innoculated in 2005, just before coming to China. I believe we refer to the vaccine as BCG.
Doctor: Freda, I need to see your arm. Can you take your top off. [Inspecting the arms] I can't see a scar here. Are you sure she's had it?
Lesley: Yes, in 2005. Her sister's vaccination site took several weeks to heal and she has a big scar but Freda had no local reaction, it healed quickly and left virtually no scar.
Doctor: Mmmm. Where did she have it? Is that the scar? I can't see a scar. So, did she have it?
Lesley: Do these symptoms really fit TB? Apart from the diarrhoea, tiredness and mood swings, she's been well. I didn't realise TB presented itself like this [i.e. no fever, no bloody phlegm, no cough (since the Spring).
Doctor: Well, if a child has diarrhoea for this long, we have to consider some special diseases....

[After 45 minutes, more perplexed]
Doctor: Well, Freda's weight is normal. She should weight about 26 kilos by this age and she weighs 28, which is unusual for someone who has had diarrhoea for so long. So, what is the diarrhoea like?
Lesley: Water
Doctor: Really? Like water? And does it have anything special in it?
Lesley: Apparently undigested food. Fairly typical, acute, diarrhoea.
Doctor: And how often does she go in a day, 2 or 3 times?
Lesley: About 5 to 6 times?
Doctor: Really? Freda, how often do you go a day?
Freda: Well, about 5 or 6 times, it depends. Sometimes more.
Doctor: And it's diarrhoea?

[And so we went on, round and round in circles. I was beginning to doubt my own sanity, judgement and memory.]

Lesley: Freda's symptoms have been much worse the last 3-4 months but she has had similar symptoms for years, now that we think about it. Each time she's been unwell, however, we've been able to find other reasonable explanations so we never made any connection.
Doctor: So, when did it start?
Lesley: Well, if what I said is true, I can't remember. She could have been like this for years but we thought it was 'normal'.
Doctor: So, before you came to China, how often did she go to the toilet (No 2) a day?
Lesley: I can't remember, that was four and a half years ago. Had I realised at the time it was significant I would have counted, but I didn't. All I am sure of is that there are certain patterns....
Doctor: So you can't say how many times she went to the toilet before you came to China.

[55 minutes into the consulation]
Lesley:....and that things are worse now. We've had to take her to the hospital twice this term  for a saline drip...
Doctor: Oh yes, because you were worried.
Lesley: No, primarily because we couldn't rehydrate her orally, she was losing too much liquid.
Doctor: Really, so you needed a drip?
Lesley: Yes, she was dehydrated.
Doctor: Oh, I see. So she really did have diarrhoea?

Lesley: Can you test for gluten intolerance here?
Doctor: Yes, we can run several food allergy tests, like beef, fish, eggs and so on.
Lesley: What about for gluten - I believe the test is for specific enzymes [showed email]. Could you please check.
Doctor: [after calling the lab] No, we can't do that. I think you'd better see a doctor in the UK.


You think that was long-winded? That's not half of it. Sorry to off-load. I need to rant to someone. I must finish by saying, however, that I am EXCEPTIONALLY grateful to VSO for bringing us to Beijing to find a doctor. If I'm a little frustrated it's as much as wanting a reasonable service for VSO (given that they are paying) than for ourselves. I shall remain optimistic, however,  about tomorrow's consultation. The other good news is that whatever is wrong with Freda, she's thriving on her gluten and dairy-free diet. Regular as clockwork, perhaps for the first time in her life. Yes, really.....

B&J's 'small children's play room.'
Receptionist: Hello. We have a small children's play room. Would you like to see it?

Freda: Hey, mum! Does she mean a playroom for small children, or a small room for children to play, hee hee hee?

Receptionist: It's this way....

Freda and Lesley follow in excited anticipation.

Freda: Ha ha! I guess both are right.

Freda boarding the 1st plane, to Kunming
Freda and I had a civilized start this morning with a 9:20 am departure from Simao airport. It didn’t stop her and Edie getting up at a ridiculously early time. At 6:20 a.m. I heard them laughing and giggling in Freda’s bed then the debate started over who would have custody of Fuzz (aka Freda’s Tamagotchi electronic pet) for the next week. Freda won and Fuzz is having a holiday in Beijing. I hope his electronics can survive sub-zero conditions as he joins us in the wintery capital. It snowed heavily last week, apparently a result of some more cloud seeding. Why? Some government officials fancied a few days off work and thought road chaos and powercuts would be the perfect excuse.

As Freda remarked on the plane, "It's a long way to go to see a doctor" - a taxi, two planes, two trains and 20-minute walk brought us to the hotel. Tomorrow we have another 20-minute walk to the clinic where Freda has a date with a paediatrician. I suspect we'll be having a few tests done - I say "we" because I know that anything Freda has to have stuck into her will be a test of my creative parenting. She's already decided that even if she does have a gluten intolerance, she can still eat chocolate. Given that so many of her favourite foods (yoghurt, milk, bread) are currently on her forbidden list, I'm relieved to find something I can offer as a reward.

Our hotel room is very untypical of Chinese standard rooms as we know them - no white tiles or white linen in sight. Infact, as well as floral bedspreads we have two vases of flowers. They're artificial but I think that can be forgiven given the climate. It does help explain why all the Beijingers on the flight were laden with large, gift-wrapped bunches of flowers from the Spring City of Kunming. Time for bed. Given that I went to bed last night feeling thoroughly miserable and anxious about this trip, we're in relatively good form. This is thanks mostly to Freda taking everything in her stride as usual. I've got a splitting headache and still a heavy heart but we've travelled several thousand miles for a long-awaited consultation so that's something to feel pleased about. Fingers (and toes) crossed... 

Our home-from-home in Central Beijing, courtesy of VSO medical insurance.
Xi Men Jie
This afternoon I was skulking about in a part of Simao's old town I hadn't been to before. One of my current projects is trying to record photographically as much of "old" Simao before the bulldozers finally destroy all the beautiful (but terrible to live in!) adobe brick houses. To be honest there's not much left - even in last few years there has been a phenomenal building boom and a rash of new, earthquake-proof white tiled concrete palaces, complete with Grecian pillars and painted in lurid pink has taken over from the warm-toned redbrown brick. Even after 4 years here I still have the forlorn hope that I'll stumble across some preserved vestige of ancient China, some fantastic little corner which will live up to all the misinformed preconceptions I had of 21st Century China before we came here. Well today I thought I'd found it!

I couldn't believe my eyes. Across the rooftops I spied the beautiful tiled roof and upturned eaves of an old temple, windchimes jangling in the wind. Heart racing, I braved a pack of feebly yelping dogs and found the side entrance. Inside it was perfect - serene, with a carp pond and covered walkways holding calligraphy equipment and teadrinking paraphenalia. The main hall was light and airy but I was confused by the mishmash of gods on show. Three Buddhas centrally placed suggested a Buddhist temple, and sure enough on their left were some images of Guanyin and Dizang, Then I noticed a statue of an old fellow with a droopy calligraphy brush - Laozi, the founder of Taoism. On the far left sat Cai Shen, God of Wealth, usually seen in Taoist or local folk temples. Finally I saw a couple of even more familiar characters, Kongzi (Confucius himself) cosying up with a statue of Mao Zedong. It was all a bit strange - this place seemed to be devoted every possible aspect of Chinese "religious" culture.

Back outside I found an old lady (always a good bet) to fill me in. No, there was no monk in residence. When I asked how old the place was she said 3 or 4. I thought 350 years seems quite old, then thought again and checked. No, this place really was only 3 or 4 years old! It was new - hence the rather all embracing religious iconography. The traditional architecture and faded, peeling, distressed woodwork had fooled me into believing this really was my long-sought-after ancient retreat, and, ironically, it's been thrown up in the same time we've lived here in Simao. Next on the agenda is to find out more. Who's the owner? Why build it? Does anyone come to pray here? It certainly makes a change from yet another white-tiled, flat roofed utilitarian residence block!
'What? Did I say that?'
Parents' evening involves joining all the other mums or dads for a few speeches and fee payments in their child's classroom. I sat at Edie's desk though, interestingly, her deskmate's parent was nowhere to be seen. Ali headed to Freda's classroom and sat at the back with Lao Yang's mum, nodding his head at intervals to look like he understood. He was handed back Freda's mid-term maths paper and otherwise kept his head down. He got off lightly. Meantime, back in Edie's classroom, my early term actions were already catching up with me.

Mid-way through a speech about learning strategies from Miss Zhou, (Edie's Chinese and Form teacher), which I was generally following, she piped up, "Edie de mama....." [Edie's mum...]. She began telling the parents that she was using a different method to correct their children's homework and this was as a result of me speaking to her a month or so ago. "Edie de mama [rough translation follows] told me that children don't really like getting big red crosses on their homework and that it's discouraging." From now on she'll be circling difficulties and mistakes, and asked that the parents take time to go through these with their child, helping them understand what's wrong and correct it. "I know this is a bit more bother for you", she added, "but it's a better way......we are all our children's teachers, not only me." Well, I was hiding under the desk by this time, but there was more to come. As a result of our home-schooling routine, Teacher Zhou is handing out a survey to all parents, to find out just how much they do with their children at home - homework, projects, indoor and outdoor activities, etc, etc. She circulated the Home School booklet we made last week and encouraged the parents to think of ways to incorporate their child's learning into daily life. They were really looking at me by this point.

What's more, Teacher Zhou wants to collaborate and do some of our home school projects at school. She remarked that Freda and Edie are excellent students, despite only being at school half-time, so she assumes we're doing something right. When I expressed my embarrassment at what had happened to Hou Wanxia she said I needn't worry. It's likely that most parents feel the same. Although parents give in to the pressure to get high scores, most children suffer under this system. Who likes getting big ready crosses and points deducted? Most parents will be delighted if their child has the chance to thrive in a more encouraging system. We are documenting all home school activities and are going to give Freda and Edie's Form Teachers weekly updates. Any suggestions for good projects? Send them our way....

This is me doing some Chinese writing.
Today I am doing my own Home school. I have just done an hour of chinese and next I will do some maths for about an hour. I always make a bit of a mess on the desk I am doing my homework on. Tina isn't coming in today so it dosn't really matter. Today I am also going to play a bit of Hulusi. My Chinese writing isn't that good but I still like to write. The book in the bottom right coner is my Maths note-book. It is quite cold today that is why I am wearing a jacket and a body warmer. It is also quite misty today and the class bell has just gone of so there are lots of students about.

Keep up the good work Freda!

The Primary 3 mid-term maths paper
What astounds me isn't that Freda knows how to work out these maths problems, it's that she can do it under pressure and get 100% in her maths exam. There simply seems so much scope for mistakes, not due to ignorance, just good old-fashioned human error -  a slip of the pencil, the brain reading a 6 as a 9, adding instead of subtracting. As it happens she sailed through her mid-term exams, both Chinese and Maths, without losing her head. It's clear that we have no cause for concern about her school work in the wake of all this time off. What we need to remember is to keep her in touch with her friends and social life.

There's always fresh fruit nearby in Simao. These days we just need to step outside the back gate of the College to find this lady selling bananas and oranges from her tricycle. We were even forced to sample some before buying. It's the orange season but since our friendly orange farmer went to live in Shenzhen with his daughter we don't know anyone with an orange grove. We visited him for four years but were shocked last November when we discovered his small farmhouse overgrown and the orange grove taken over by weeds.

We're still in T-shirts and sandals these days, yet had to splash out on some fur-lined boots for Freda. The reason? I'm taking her to Beijing to see a paediatrician, following yet another week off school with the same old symptoms - diarrhoea, tiredness, mood swings. It's been 3 months now and we're beginning to feel very stressed at being unable to solve the health mystery. We seemed to have exhausted the local health service and VSO London are expressing concern. I'm glad. We need help now. 

One thing I'd like to look into is whether she has some kind of food allergy. She was very sick a few nights ago, following a couscous meal. Another coincidence is that this term has been particularly bad and the main difference in our lifestyle has been the oven. How ironic if all those lovely pizzas, cakes, loaves of bread, flans, etc could have led to her physical demise. When a friend brought up gluten intolerance as a possibility so many other things came to mind - how Freda is always ill when we go on holiday. Going on holiday always involves passing through Kunming, where we have a sudden increase in wheat products - bread, buns, pizza. We only used to have a loaf of bread about once a month, which was about how often Freda used to be ill. We always put it down to poor hygiene. The cause of the last 3 months of ill health may not be a food allergy, but we're going to look into it, among other things. We leave on Sunday with all our winter woollens.
Training Zhenyuan and Jingdong TLTs.
We write about our travels, our family life, health problems and work. We write about people we meet, things that bug us, culture, food, money. In fact, we write about almost everything except how we're really feeling. We write this blog to keep you up to date with what we're up to in China, give you a sense of what it's like to live in China, to create a picture of the VSO experience. The truth is that for me the hardest thing about being here isn't the squat toilets, the work pressures, the dangerous roads, pollution on Ninger Avenue, the two-facedness of the Dean of English. The hardest thing is the social and professional isolation, and the loneliness. I've felt isolated and lonely before, but I have had other mechanisms of support, other ways to manage this. Here I feel more restricted. Now that my Chinese has improved I can talk to people at bus stops or when I pop into a shop. I can greet our neigbours and chat about the weather. When it comes to more serious things like how the kids are getting on at school, or how many more hundreds of swine flu cases there are in Simao, or increasing traffic and dangerous driving, our would-be reference groups are non-existent. We sit with the parents and grandparents at pick-up time but most of them can't get beyond the, "oh, can your daughter understand the teacher?" or "can you use chopsticks?" to get to the things that really matter. It's lonely and hard dealing with these things on our own.

One doesn't need to be standing next to a best friend to lighten the load. It's sometimes enough just to know that others feel the same worries, the same pressures, have the same questions. Maybe it is true here, but it's hard to access. Either people don't open up much, or they just don't open up to us. I suspect both is true. I was recently asked by SAFEA (State Administration for Foreign Affairs) to complete a "knowledge test". I'd say 'general knowledge' except that it wasn't. It was mostly facts about the USA and Chinese culture, with the odd bit of maths thrown in. One of the questions was: "Would you generally describe the Chinese people as...(a) excited (b) outgoing (c) supressed (d) lively?" I opted for supressed, though I know it varies according to place, person etc. Maybe I'll lose my job for this somewhat negative view but where we see excited, outgoing and lively people it tends to be in a crowd, expressing drilled sentiment like jia you ("come on!") next to a basketball court. I find it hard to have a heart to heart because people don't often express their own feelings.

I'm still here, still doing my job, still smiling and making the most of life, but when I fall asleep and wake up in the morning, it is often with a heavy heart. If I think of Scotland, if I think of Freda being ill, if I think of many things, I feel profoundly sad. I'm homesick and probably have symptoms of mild depression but it's hard to leave. I love my job. I have a job. We have a home and the children have a reasonably happy life. Ali doesn't have a job but is writing a book and seems happy to have escaped the 9 to 5 routine of the BGS. We spend the holidays travelling to fascinating places and exploring rich and interesting cultures. We have a couple of friends who know a little part of us and accept us for who they think we are. That's as good as it gets in many cases. The fact that half of our selves are shelved back in Scotland may be irrelevant. Every environment forces one to compromise in one way or another. So what's the problem?

I'm lonely and isolated. That's hard to manage sometimes. There are emotions behind the mask and that's a very real part of this VSO life.