Back from Hong Kong

So, the last few days, despite not having that much activity, were horribly draining and exhausting.  (Also, temporarily horrifyingly expensive.)

We left for the train station at around 9, to catch our 10:30 train to Hong Kong.  While it was stressful, going to a new train station with our luggage, trying to figure out where we go and what the procedures were, I have to say that it went very smoothly.  (Well, except for the cab ride itself.  I swear, I thought I was going to end up in Guangzhou hospital after all.) At the station, having a diplomatic passport definitely helped, as we got to use the “special line” both at immigration and customs.

(That’s right, immigration and customs.  Despite Hong Kong being a part of China, China treats the border much like an international border that they control both parts of.  I’ve crossed actual international borders with less control.)

Getting a taxi in Hong Kong was difficult, mostly because I didn’t understand that we weren’t in Hong Kong proper, and so needed a “cross-harbor” taxi and so we ended up in the wrong taxi stand for forever waiting.  While there, I got a call telling me that we had missed my initial doctor’s appointment in Hong Kong.  I’d thought it was at 2PM, and we still had about 40 minutes to get there, but it was actually at 11AM, and so I’d bought the wrong train tickets to get there at all.  *headdesk*  Fortunately, the doctor agreed to meet with me later at the hospital, so we just went straight there. The driver wasn’t at first sure where we were going, and his English didn’t seem great, but once I gave the address (in English) he was like, “oh, Stubbs Road, got it.”  And off we went.

My wife was very impressed with Hong Kong taxis, compared to Guangzhou ones.  The driver was much more careful and the taxi was much cleaner.  I was more freaked out by the whole “left-side” of the road thing.  I know I shouldn’t have been, but it felt so damn unnatural in so many ways.

Intake into the hospital took awhile, as they had 3 people for both admission and discharge, but we finally got in.  When I was setting up the visit, I was asked what kind of room I wanted, and not knowing anything, I decided I might as well go with private, as Becca was coming too.  I feel vindicated in that choice.  The room was wonderful.  We had a bathroom, plenty of room for our stuff, and a wonderful view.  (It turns out that insurance only covers up to a semi-private, but I still consider the upgrade money well spent.)

Hospital view

That night involved the preparations for the next day.  No solid food, only liquids, and two pitchers of the nastiest tasting ick I’ve ever had to swallow.  (I seriously gagged on it near the end.)  That led to the cleansing of the insides, and then nothing more by mouth.

The next morning started with the scopes.  While originally I was just going for a colonoscopy, the doctor decided that an endoscopy would be a good idea too.  I was put under, and when I woke up I had a weird itch on my hand.  (We’ll get back to that.)

Next up was a CT scan with contrast.  I’ve never had a CT done, and it was a strange experience.  I’m not usually too claustrophobic, but that machine started to trigger it. Then, they pumped in the contrast.  They had warned me, but it…nothing could have prepared me.  There was a horrible taste and smell (despite it being put in intravenously,) and then my whole body felt like I was suddenly on fire.  My bowels felt like they were going to release, and I felt a horrible need to urinate.  I’ve had a lot of awful experiences, medical and otherwise, and I don’t think any compare to this.

When that was over, it was back to my room to wait.  Eventually the doctor got back to me–colonoscopy was clear, CT scans showed nothing, endoscopy showed a strange “node” in my throat, but otherwise nothing.  (I am awaiting the biopsy of the node, but I was assured it didn’t look too bad.)  So, all that, and nothing.  No polyps, no tumors, no inflammation, no sores, nothing.  So, he said I have “spastic colon” (aka IBS), and suggested drugs and diet changes.  (The diet changes have more to do with some fat deposits near my liver, actually.)

By this time, the hand that was kinda itchy after the scopes had fully swollen up and become extremely painful.  For the rest of that day, we were trying to figure out what was wrong with my hand and what kind of medicine would help with it.  We never figured it out, but two days later (as I’m typing this) it’s finally back down to normal, and back to just “kinda itchy.”  Ugh.

We left yesterday and came back.  I’d taken 3 days off of work, which had been granted slightly grudgingly by my boss when it came time to sign the forms for it (“With all this time off, do you think you’re going to make it through your tour here?”  Really??).  I’m down (temporarily) $11K, because the hospital in HK doesn’t have a “contract” with my insurance (despite my insurance sending a letter promising to pay the vast majority of my bill), so I have to deal with that on Monday.  In some ways, it was a disheartening experience.

At the same time, I know I’m incredibly lucky.  I have enough space on a credit card to charge that $11K, and even if insurance is slow in paying me back for part of it, I can afford to pay that off.  (It will set back some other long term goals until it gets paid back, of course.)  I do have medical leave, something I didn’t have at most of my previous jobs.  Though, if I’d been in teh states, I wouldn’t have had to spend 3 days in the hospital for these services–it could have been a single day.

Next up are some talks with MED in Beijing.  I don’t imagine this will affect my med clearance, but the possibility exists.  I’ve been working with them on these issues, and they need to stay on top of it.  I have to get prescriptions for the various drugs into my online pharmacy, to make sure I can keep getting them.  I have to work with my insurance for reimbursement.  (All of that on top of my normal work day.)

Funsies. I know I’m lucky, to be a public servant and to have a job that gives me so many benefits, but the challenges with dealing with foreign medical systems are real.

(To support Foreign Service Officers in situations like mine, I’ve created a Foreign Service Spoonies Facebook Group.  It’s open to any FSOs who suffer from chronic illness.)

More medical issues

So, what has always been some “minor” stomach issues has now erupted into a full-blown medical crisis.  I’ve had some weird stomach pressure and pain recently, and I missed a few days of work because of it.  Then, it went away, and I figured it was just something I’d eaten (though, honestly, I knew that the pressure at least had been around too long.)

This week, the “pressure” came back, but it wasn’t pressure.  It was full blown pain, like “Oh god, my stomach is going to explode” pain.  I worked through it for two days (yes, I’m American, and yes we do that way too much), and on a day when we didn’t have as much going on, I went up to the nurse at work.  She investigated it, and found that it was tender, and it had something called “rebound tenderness,” where suddenly letting up causes the pain to get worse.  She told me I needed to go see a doctor.  Again, because I’m an idiot, I asked it could wait until Saturday, and she looked at me like she couldn’t believe I said that, and said that I really needed to see the doctor that day if possible.  I was worried that my bosses would object, why I don’t know (I know I wasn’t thinking clearly), but they (of course) said it was fine for me to go.

(I bring all this up because I want to explain the crappy mindset you can end up with if you grow up poor, and then spend several years without either insurance or sick leave. It leaves you fearful of taking any time off work when sick.)

The doctor inspected me, and further explained that rebound tenderness is a Very Bad Thing.  Blood and stool tests were both done, but both came back normal.  He talked to me about possibilities, and this conversation included some scary words (though he did say it probably wasn’t a tumor, since there was no blood in my stool).  He said that he wanted to do a colonoscopy to try to figure out what was wrong.

And this is where being sick in the FS is different than normal life.  Back home, I’d say ok, and we’d schedule it for as soon as possible in the closest hospital.  However, due to concerns about local doctors and facilities, I’m supposed to run this by our health unit at the Consulate, who then run it by the Health Unit at the Embassy.  They have detailed information on all the facilities in the country, and can determine if it is safe to have it at the local hospital or if I need to go elsewhere.  In this case, they have decided that I should go instead to Hong Kong to have this test done.  So, now I wait for that to get scheduled, and then I’ll put in for the few days off needed to go and get a simple procedure done.

I am currently grateful for having good insurance, good bosses, good friends, and most of all a good wife who supports me through all my problems.  But, for once I’d like my body not to be falling apart.  Oh well.

From the Bloggess

I love the Bloggess, especially when she writes about her mental health issues, her depression, her anxiety, and her just general bizarreness.  (She has also written a lot about her rheumatoid arthritis and other physical issues, which I’m sure readers of mine understand that I relate to closely.)  Her amazing candor has helped me come to grips with a lot of my own mental problems (mostly depression) in a lot of ways.  I know that reading her book Let’s Pretend this Never Happened helped me accept taking antidepressants.

Her most recent post was about Mental Health Awareness Month, which is apparently May.  She said that most people (or at least those who read her blog) are already aware of mental health, and so she changed it up.  She asked her readers two questions.  Here are my stabs at some answers, and my other general thoughts on the subject.

HOW HAS MENTAL ILLNESS AFFECTED YOU PERSONALLY?

In many ways, I’m one of the “lucky” ones.  As far as I can tell, I’m only dealing with garden variety depression, the kind that makes it hard to get up and get moving every day.  Even then, it’s not so bad as to actually keep me from doing that (yet).

And I’m pretty sure that my physical issues loop into and reinforce the mental ones (and vice versa).  Depression causes pain; pain causes depression.  Pain causes me to be exhausted, which leads to my not doing much, which leads to be being sad about everything that didn’t get done.  I’ve made some efforts to stop this (see: aforementioned antidepressants).  I make myself get up and do shit anyway, but there are a LOT of things I miss out on because I just have no energy or willpower left.

So, it has affected my social life, and sometimes it has made work harder.  (The pain can affect things as much as anything else–there have been days when either due to stomach upset or horribly painful joints I couldn’t work.)  But, my awareness of my problems has also led to my being more empathetic than I used to be, particularly about other forms of privilege that I might have been blind to.  As a straight white cismale, my life if mostly on easy mode.  (Not saying my life has been easy, just that there are many ways in which life could have been harder.)  I did not realize how much privilege I had until this one was pulled away, and then it became more clear.  I care more about social justice now than I probably did in college.

WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM IT THAT MIGHT HELP OTHERS?

The most important thing I’ve learned is that there are people who will support you, who will help you, who will back you up.

See, I’ve realized that I’ve dealt with depression since at least middle school, if not earlier.  I remember days when, halfway through the school day, I just had no more energy left to deal with things, even just holding the bow for my string bass.  (Reminder for those who don’t know:  depression is not sadness.  It is a loss of interest, energy, and desire.)   But I didn’t know that’s what it was.  I didn’t realize I had a problem, or that I could talk to someone, or get any kind of help.  (And to be fair, I probably couldn’t have then–it’s not like we had the resources.)  Now, there are a million people online, going through similar things, who I can turn to.  (Not to mention my wonderful wife, who gets me in ways I never thought possible.)

Number two, as the Bloggess always puts it: depression lies.  There are worries I have that are pretty unlikely to come about, such as losing my job entirely, having to retire early, etc.  I know that I do a good job, and that I will likely make Senior Foreign Service and enjoy the hell out of it.  But, when it flares, it’s hard to remember, and all I want to do is hide away and pretend I don’t have responsibilities, and I worry some day I’ll give in or have to give in.  And I have to remember, no, I can do this and I will.

Number 3:  Be kind to others.  Show empathy.  Lift others up when you can.  You have to look out, realize where you are privileged, and use that not just for yourself but for others.  Do not assume you have it worse off, or make fun of those who have problems that don’t seem as bad as yours.  It can be hard, sometimes, but it’s vitally important, especially if you want others to help you.

So those are the lessons.  Depression and other diseases lie, you are not alone, and damn it babies, you’ve got to be kind.

Guangzhou!

We haven’t done a whole lot other than get settled in since arriving, but I figured I should share something about that.

I will admit that our first night involved me breaking down crying.  The trip over was crazy stressful, as can be seen in the last post, and my whole everything had just had it by the end.  I continued to be jet-lagged for a whole week.  Which was uck.

But! Our sponsors took really good care of us.  Our first full day in country, they took us shopping at the big supermarket, showed us where the “wet market” (more on that later) was, and helped us get both our cell phones and subway cards set up.  Shout out to them for that.

In most ways, the difference between here and Togo is night and day.  Some pictures from either our apartment or nearby to demonstrate:

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That’s a Ferrari and Maserati dealership, next to a each other, inside the courtyard of our apartment complex.  I’ve also seen Rolls Royce and Bentley dealerships.

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The Pearl River.

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Skyscrapers!!

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Our street at night!

One thing that felt kind of familiar, but just MUCH bigger, was the “wet market.”  That’s where you can buy fresh vegetables right from someone who brought them in.  Oh, but you can buy so much more, including living seafood and fresh meat.  (Mostly pork, but hey, it’s China.)  I believe it may be the Teacher’s favorite thing so far.

We’ve also found some great local food, which makes me very happy.  Overall, we’re settling in, and we’re doing well.  Our apartment is beautiful, our neighborhood is wonderful, and we’re very happy.

Getting to China

So, our trip to China took a lot longer in many ways that our trip to Togo did, all of which led to me crying into my new pillow unable to sleep.  (In fact, as of writing this on Friday, I still haven’t really slept since waking up in San Fran on Wednesday.)

It should be noted that, as this is a move, we have everything we can possibly bring with us with us.  That’s four HUGE duffel-ish bags, two carryons, two backpacks, and the cats.  So, each step in this is a huge undertaking.

A quick chronology:

My brother and his wife helped get me and the Teacher to Dulles.  I had been told (and wrote down!) that all we had to do with the cats was bring them and a copy of our orders to the desk, and we’d be set.  (Oh, and pay out a fairly large sum of money.)  We get there…and they have no idea who said that, but they know for sure we don’t have a reservation and we need to go to the United Cargo building (which isn’t actually in the airport) to get the cats prepped to go.  Now, we arrived with about 3 hours to spare, give or take, but we needed almost all of that to get from United, to United Cargo, and back and to our flight.  We had to call the booking person again, get everything re-set up (because if there had ever been a reservation, it was totally lost), and then get back in time for our flight.  While tight, we made it.  (Of course, the cats weren’t at all happy about this.)  Also, the guy at the United Cargo building at first was not remotely helpful, just saying he couldn’t do anything to help us.  When we called up the United Petsafe people, he got a bit less hostile, but ugh.  Just…ugh.

The flight to San Francisco was one of the least comfortable ever.  The plane was at capacity, there was nothing to help pass the time, and no food.  One drink.  For a five hour trip.  We ended up buying one of their overpriced snack boxes just because we were so hungry.

We got off the plane in SF, picked up our bags, and went to get a cab to take us to the SF cargo building.  The cabbie refused!  He said that a short trip that took over 30 minutes would cause him to lose his place in line, and he would have to wait forever for another fare.  I told him that we wouldn’t take any time at the cargo building, if it took too long he could leave, etc., just so he would take us.  (We were already exhausted from the ordeal in Dulles and the damn flight.)  He eventually relented, and acknowledged that the time at cargo was really short (they, thankfully, had everything figured out and gave the cats over quick.)

The hotel staff were nice.  I found the La Quinta Airport North in South San Francisco pretty decent.  Not especially nice, but considering they just let you have up to two pets per room, it was definitely very good for the money.

But, when we arrived, we had another issue–no litter box, nor any place to buy one near by.  There were no Targets, Dollar Trees, etc., within walking distance, nor was there a nearby BART (metro) station.  I walked about 20 minutes to a store, found out they had nothing, walked on further and found a store that sold litter and little, wide buckets for carrying things.  (Instant litter box!)  So, while hotel was good, location was lacking.

The next day was actually great. I got done with my consultations very early, and we went out to dinner with my Oberlin “little sister,” her boyfriend, and another old friend.  The Teacher got some extra piercings she’d long wanted.  The third day was also good, despite the most mediocre Mexican food I’ve ever had.  (In SF! And I’m from KY!)

An aside:  One other exception was my experience with taxi drivers in SF. Between the ones who got lost, who had to rely on me and my smart phone for directions, who were just rude, and the one who was blaring conservative talk radio the whole trip, I don’t think I’ve been to a city with worse taxis.  Ugh.

But dear god, Wednesday.  It started early, with us going to SFO VERY early to make sure everything was good.  Which was good, because while it wasn’t as much running as it was at Dulles, there was still some running around!  We got to the desk (and I was apparently pre-testy, perhaps due to our experience in Dulles), and they started to say something about how they could only do this for military, and we weren’t military, and I almost exploded, until I heard him say “only military get free pet shipping” and I explained that I knew we had to pay for it, and that was apparently the only actual discrepancy.  But, we had to go to QuickPak (which took forever to find), and then back up to our flight.  We were able to semi-upgrade to an exit row, so we had a lot more room to relax on the 13 hour flight.

I want to stress that the United people in SFO were all lovely, and I feel kind of bad for being short and testy with them.

That flight wasn’t so bad–it was just LONG is all.

We got to Seoul, though, and we had to run all over that airport to get our kitties taken care of.  First we went to information, who told us that United had taken care of everything, but that we should check with our next airline (Asiana) to be sure.  We finally found the Asiana desk, and they said, no, we needed to see United to transfer the cats.  We got lost, but eventually found the United desk (which required us to go through immigration).  United then took us to quarantine.  The lady there said we needed extra paperwork we didn’t have (that China doesn’t require).  We explained that we weren’t bringing the cats into Korea, but instead flying on with them to China.  So, they had to refigure that, basically how to move the cats from one airline to the other without going through quarantine and such.  When they got that settled, I thought we were told to go on to our gate, which we did.  We got there hours before the flight, and once the attendants were at the gate, I asked them if everything was good and we were set up.  They told me yes.  And then, about 10 minutes before boarding, they asked if I’d paid.  I hadn’t yet, thinking I’d do that at the gate, and then I had to run back to the main Asiana desk and back down to the gate.  (And Becca didn’t even know where I’d gone, which made matters worse for her.) All the running around in Seoul left me absolutely exhausted, and admittedly cranky.

I wish I could tell you much about that flight, but I was so exhausted (I had been awake for something like 25 hours, I think?), and I collapsed into one of the most painful naps of my life as soon as I sat down.  I was extremely sore and kind of cantakerous when we touched down in China.

The China part was not nearly as dramatic as the Seoul part, thankfully.  We went through immigration (which, being a diplomat meant that we could go through the “special” very short line), and then picked up our bags for customs.  This took forever, and then we had to get the cats and go through quarantine.  There was some confusion about where the cats were, as apparently they’d changed up the baggage carousel at the last moment, and everyone assumed our cats would be on the carousel, but in reality the airline was nice enough to just wheel them out to us.  Quarantine wasn’t too bad, but took forever, as didn’t know our Chinese address or phone numbers yet. By the time we got to our sponsor, who had been waiting to meet us since we were supposed to arrive at midnight, it was about 2:30 in the morning.  (Meaning:  I had been up more or less for 30 hours.)  We took the cats home, set up the little jerry-rigged “litter box” our sponsor gave us, and tried to go to bed.

The next part of our story, settling in to Guangzhou, will be less a factual story and more about my own emotions and such, and so will be another post, when I have the energy.

Update on Chinese, Tenure, and Life

So, a few weeks ago I finished Chinese training.  Since I’m going to an Entry-Level Officer position with a “super-hard” language, my requirements weren’t as high as they usually are in State.  I needed a “2/1″, meaning limited professional proficiency in speaking and conversational reading.  (Normally, a 3/3, or professional proficiency, is needed.)  Due in large part to my past experience and the wonderful teachers at the Foreign Service Institute, I actually got a 2+/2!  This means extra money!  I’m ecstatic on that front.

A week or two before testing, the “tenure list” came out.  This is a list of all the people the State Department officially recommends to Congress for tenure.  While theoretically Congress could ignore it or change it, it never happens.  So, I have tenure!  What does that mean?  A few things:

1) They like me, they really like me!

2) I’m eligible for a promotion to FSO-3.

3) I won’t get fired after my fifth year.  (This can and does happen, though not often.  You have three chances at tenure, and if you don’t get it, you have to leave.)

All of that is exciting enough, but now we’re also preparing for our move.  Lots of shopping, lots of everything really.  Tomorrow we have our going away party (we don’t leave for another two weeks, though–but in that time we’re planning a quick trip to WV to see my wife’s family.)  I’m both sad and excited–We’ve known we were going to Guangzhou for over 3 years now, and it’s finally happening!  But, at the same time, there are so many friends here in DC and around the country that I haven’t seen enough of (or just haven’t seen!  The Cleveland crew in particular is sadly missed.)  This is the biggest paradox with this life–I love moving and seeing new places, but I constantly miss those left behind.  C’est la vie.

So, that’s what’s up.  I’ll try to remember to post more once we’re safely in China!

Boston!

So, President’s Day Weekend, the Teacher and I went to Boston!  We have a friend who lives there, and it’s our last long weekend before China.  Of course, that’s the same weekend a blizzard blew in.  Que sera. 

We didn’t have a whole lot planned, anyway.  Trip to the aquarium, eat some seafood, hang out with our friend.  That’s about what we did.  Neither I nor the Teacher had ever been to an aquarium, so while it was smaller than I expected, it was a lot of fun.  (Also, due to our friend’s membership it was pretty cheap too!)  For a Valentine’s Day gift, the Teacher asked for a salt lamp, which is really pretty but also odd.  (As she said, she will not buck the tradition of women asking for large minerals.)  I also got her two stuffed animals, an octopus and a humpback whale.  They’re adorable.  (She’s been sick recently, and she’s taken to napping with one or the other.)

The seafood was good.  At Legal Seafood, our friend and I split some oysters, while the Teacher had some baked fish.  We all shared some exquisite calamari. I also tried raw clams for the first time, and quite possibly the last.  (They weren’t bad; they just were really, really oceany.)  At that point, the snow had begun, so we made one more stop at Flour Bakery, to pick up the surprise Boston Creme Pie our friend had ordered us.  We wanted to try a few other things too, and so I got some bread pudding.  I never knew bread pudding could be light and airy, but this was.  It was wonderfully subtle, something I’m not used to from bread pudding.

Aside from that, we just pretty much hung out at our friend’s and watched the snow pile up.  He braved the cold and brought back a few pounds of lobster meat, which was the first time for the Teacher.  I usually find lobster horribly overpriced, but this was really good and fresh.

Fortunately, the snow stopped early enough on Sunday that we had no problems with the airport Monday morning.  Unfortunately, I learned an important lesson–I’m too old/sick to do 6AM flights, esp. when the snow means it takes an hour to get to the airport.  We ended up getting in on time, but I needed the next snow day for my body to recover.  Lesson learned.

Overall, I like Boston, and could see visiting more often, but our friend is moving out (probably) in August, and so who knows when we will get back.