Bed 31 is covered with a thin white blanket, awaiting the post-surgery arrival of Deng Yilian, 52, native of tiny Malu in southwest China’s Hunan Province. To the left, on Bed 30, Deng’s daughter Cotton, 29, now of Shanghai, is seated, legs crossed; to the right, on a bed inexplicably labeled 31+, her son Mondy, 27 and also of Shanghai, is lying down. It was to be the weekend of his wedding, and his bride—Wenwen, 27, a willowy native of Shanghai—is sitting on a chair across from 31+, watching a kung fu soap opera on the television in front of windows overlooking a boulevard in Changsha, Hunan’s capital city. Just down the hall, three surgeons are working to repair the damage done by a botched back surgery from fifteen years earlier that has suddenly threatened Deng Yilian’s spinal cord.
I had been invited to the wedding, and when it was postponed at the last minute, the family invited me to accompany them to Changsha. They were among my first Chinese friends five years ago, and now they are among my best. On the window ledge is a plastic bag containing cigarettes purchased for the wedding dinner in Malukou, an eight-hour drive into the mountains. Cotton and Mondy speak their native, incomprehensible Xiang dialect for much of the morning, and at one point, Wenwen and I smile knowingly at each other, bonding as unlikely compatriots in outsider-dom.
“Let’s walk,” Cotton says to me, suddenly, shifting into the peculiar jagged dialect of English that she calls “Cotton-ese.” We descend five floors to the wide, dusty street, surrounded by tenements with first-floor shops and restaurants. Cotton, barely five feet tall but with an outsized charisma and beauty, squints at pockets of street life, miniature maelstroms lost in the boulevard’s broad spaces. She left Hunan ten years ago as a village shoe-shine girl; after graduating from art school in Guangzhou, she migrated to Shanghai, where she waitressed at an American-style café and now owns a beloved restaurant and bar located in a colonial-era French villa. Though not exactly the queen of Shanghai’s nightlife, she is certainly one of its princesses. “But I don’t feel like a princess in Hunan,” she tells me as we round a corner where wiry, sweat-soaked workers crouch with their rice bowls, eating. “That’s why I can’t come back here.”
We wander through a market that sells second-hand refrigeration equipment, televisions, and motorcycles. My presence—a white face in a run-down section of Changsha—is cause for smiles and finger-pointing. “The life is hard here,” Cotton says. “Nothing to do but be bored and worry about the money.” She reminds me that the high school where Mao Zedong was a student, and later taught, is just a few minutes away. But her mother’s surgery, which was supposed to last five hours, is in its fourth, so we head back to resume our vigil.
In the hospital room, Uncle Zou—second husband to Cotton’s widowed mother—is laying across 31+. He will sleep there for the next two weeks, caring for his wife, and generally fulfilling the functions of a nurse. In a Chinese hospital, the concept of visiting hours is foreign. Chinese families, no matter how fractured, won’t leave a sick family member alone. Uncle Zou will handle the bedpan and hospital staff will handle the blood pressure. So we sit, and we wait. Cotton goes to the front desk and inquires about her mother’s progress. She is told that no news is good news. “Worry if we want to see you,” the head nurse says. A short time later, a doctor enters the room with a small white box that under other circumstances might hold earrings. He speaks softly to Cotton, and as he leaves, Cotton and Uncle Zou open it. Inside, she tells me, is a piece of one of her mother’s vertebrae. They gave it to her, she explains, to prove that they actually did the surgery. It’s a common practice, made customary by the profiteering and outright fraud that has rendered much of China’s public health system inaccessible to its residents. Cotton, however, can afford a private hospital for her mother. “Most Chinese families would be totally ruined by this,” she tells me. “We’re lucky.”
Finally, six hours after she was wheeled into the operating room, Deng Yilian is returned to her bed. She is unconscious, and her pale white face causes husband, daughter, and son to look helplessly at each other. Mondy takes his mother’s hand and I slip into the hallway.
Later that night Cotton calls to tell me that her mother woke up hungry, and when I arrive the next morning Deng Yilian is sitting up in bed, being fed muesli and yogurt by her son. On the table opposite her bed, in tinfoil, is a spicy Hunanese duck cut into pieces for Uncle Zou. After a brief, sharp Xiang exchange between mother and daughter, Cotton turns to me with an exasperated laugh. “She wants the duck even though it’s bad for her stomach,” she exclaims. “Hunanese woman is strong.”