When I arrived at the reception desk of [redacted] clinic, a jolly Chinese man with twinkling eyes enthusiastically handed me a clipboard. I reached over the crowded counter, past the aromatherapy tinctures and decorative bamboo and thanked him with a nervous, involuntary half-bow. “I’m such an idiot,” I thought. “I can’t take me anywhere.”
I’d had acupuncture years before and believed in its merits, but as I slipped a pen out of the ceramic Hello Kitty mug, skepticism began creeping in. I really had to stop grouponing.
“Fuck it,” I thought, as I sat down to fill out my medical history. It was already paid for, and my regular doctor hadn’t been able to offer anything for my hand short of surgery or constant pain medication. And despite the clinic’s unfamiliar scents and unintelligible signage (and the fact that I was about to be stabbed with dozens of tiny, baby needles) I felt more at ease in that eastern inspired waiting room than any western medical office with their sterile lighting and Highlights magazines. (I should also mention that I was pretty stoned and, come to think of it, I would’ve been totally down with some Highlights.)
Name. Age. Where do you ache? How bad is the pain on a scale of 1-10?
Standard questions on a standard form, all culminating with where I sign so I don't sue. I was interested in addressing a boxer’s fracture I had suffered years earlier as a freshman in college. A guy at a party called me a “cunt” so I decided to retaliate by breaking my hand on his face. Smart, I know. Violence doesn’t pay, but it does give you the power to predict shitty weather through your hand pain.
Are you currently pregnant?
Well, my most viable egg is traveling inside a metaphorical barrel over a very bloody Niagara Falls and straight into my pants. So no, definitely not pregnant.
Have you ever been pregnant? When? For how long? How did it result?
Under “result” were three letter choices: A/M/B, which I deciphered as “Abortion,” “Miscarriage,” or “Birth.” (Or “Baby” or “Bummer") I thought about it. I knew the answer. I had, had an abortion. In fact, I had more than one. But did I really want to write down the details? Was it relevant to pain in my hand? Should I lie? Should I have to lie? What is China’s stance on abortion?
Lazy Ally was getting impatient - insisting to lie, skip it and move on, - but present Me was conflicted. I had an abortion – multiple – and to this day I don’t think about them, except in the context that they were necessary. I don’t feel guilty. I was never sad. At the time the choice was practical, straightforward and emotionless. But somehow, owning up to it, even to a medical professional, felt alarming. I was scared of strangers thinking I was a bad person.
I thought about the consequences of being honest. What if abortion is socially unacceptable in China, or maybe even illegal? (It's not) What if the cheery receptionist stops being nice and starts getting real/curses me with his bamboo shoots? (That's racist, Ally) What if my information is entered into some government database and I end up blacklisted when some right-wing idiot inevitable becomes president? (Okay, that's legitimate)
I tapped my pen and looked around for answers. The Hello Kitty mug, with it’s empty, yet somehow friendly gaze, made me feel silly. What did I have to lose? Hello Kitty had my back. Honesty it was.
I started writing down the details. When? 2006. How long? 5 weeks. Result? A. When? 2008. How long? 7 weeks. Result? A. I should’ve contributed my own write-in answers. Result? Finishing my bachelor’s degree. Result? Not being tied indefinitely to a terrible dude. Result? Contributing to society and the greater good. Result? Moving to LA to follow my passion. Result? Having money to spend on groupons.
I breezed through the rest and returned the paperwork feeling relieved. I was a friendly, nice, (relatively non-smelly) young person, and I had, had an abortion. Multiple abortions. And I didn’t cave under the pressure to hide or feel ashamed.
A moment later, a Chinese woman, Dr. Hyun, appeared with small-rimmed glasses perched delicately on her nose. When she smiled the faintest wrinkles framed her kind eyes, and when she moved, tiny hints of gray sparkled in her hair.
“Ah-lee?” She spoke so softly I held my breath just to hear her.
“That’s me,” I said, relieved my words weren’t joined by vomit.
Dr. Hyun lead me to an exam room with a Meridian Chart (in Chinese) and another Hello Kitty, this time in the form of a sticker, on the wall.
“Hello Kitty, indeed,” I thought as I covertly adjusted my tampon string.
Dr. Hyun wasn’t very apt at small talk, which I appreciated because neither was I. I suffer from a severe language barrier with people in general, people who speak English as a first language, so I found relief in the mutual acknowledgment of our communicative limitations.
She continued where the receptionist had left off entering my medical information into the computer. Line by line she inquired what my ailments were, their duration, and to describe the pain.
She asked how I hurt my hand and I told her “my emotions got away from me.” She didn't look up from her typing. Despite my nervous jokes she was doing the right thing in keeping it professional/ignoring me.
Then came the reproductive history. “Ooohhh….” She trailed off. “Pregnant two time.”
“Yes,” I said, as evenly as I could manage, trying to withhold the hint of shame or defiance society was demanding of me. Dr. Hyun removed her small glasses and swiveled in her chair to face me. She leaned forward and looked me directly in the eyes. The moment hung. I braced myself for her to slap me.
“You know, seaweed very good for this. After. Women take seaweed stew and it relief for them. Seaweed very good for woman.”
I nodded and smiled. I also breathed for the first time in years.
“You have seaweed soup with beef?” I had not. “Good for woman. Lot of iron. Make us strong again.”
“Us,” she had said. I wanted to cry. There I was, assuming I would be, at best, subtly shamed for a legal and protected procedure, and at worst, slowly bled out by tiny baby needles as retribution for my sins. Instead, I was getting womanly advice outside the scope of any nationalism, politics or medical training. She was offering up practical wisdom from her own cultural experience. In that moment, we were two women with a current running between us. And regardless of language barriers, we both understood and knew what it meant to be in control of our bodies.
I was scared she was going to chastise me for my mistakes. Instead, she told me how to recover and become strong. I felt silly for worrying. Point: Hello Kitty.
She continued on a ten-minute lesson about recipes, herbs, and how to best manage the reproductive system that can wreak havoc on our lives. In my own relief, I recognized the same relief in Dr. Hyun. She was candidly speaking about something important to her, to someone (me) who was certainly not going to pass judgment. We were speaking the same language.
She joyfully talked about blood flow, vitamins, inversions and teas. I was fascinated. I wanted this woman to adopt me. Dr. Hyuan (WHO IS A DOCTOR) enthusiastically sang about the female body and how to heal it, something I imagine is met with the same level of ignorance and mysticism in her own backwards-ass country as ours.
Eventually, she stuck needles in me. It was good at first. And then it was great. And then it was suddenly, unequivocally bad, so she took them out and I went home.
My hand feels better -- I think. It still hurts when it rains and my period still rages on like the mighty Mississippi. But my soul feels better. My mind feels better. My faith-in-humanity-meter moved its stubborn needle one degree in the positive direction. I was reminded that I’m not ashamed, I’m not bad, and I shouldn’t feel the need to lie.
Honesty is usually met with one of two things; anger or more honesty. No matter what happens in the future, I know now that I can handle either. And whatever anger I may meet from many, the honest connections I find in a few is what life is really all about. Now, I’d buy a groupon for that.