Stop and Stare

28 05 2011

(Yes, that overplayed OneRepublic song)

By Andy Wu

Economics, GHC

“That’s what distinguishes us from the outside world: most people go about their lives unconscious of their deformities, while in this little world of ours, the deformities are a precondition. Just as Indians wear feathers on their heads to show what tribe they belong to, we wear our deformities in the open.”

The passage above was from Norwegian Wood, a book I impulsively purchased yesterday at a local bookshop whose entire English section was that of a small bookshelf.  But this is China after all, and as one of the fellow DGHI bloggers mentioned in a previous post, the Haidian district in Beijing doesn’t really cater to English-speaking expats.

Basically Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye in 1960's Japan.

The book is very nostalgic and cynical, and shares many of themes in The Great Gatsby, not so coincidentally being the protagonist’s favorite novel. The passage above was from a character that was receiving treatment for a mental breakdown.

Why am I writing about this?  Many of the patients I work with are severely burned, and will have to “wear their deformities in the open,” regardless of how much money they spend on operations and therapy.  Discussing this is clearly a very sensitive issue so I will try my best not to offend any parties.  This is only the opinion of an observer here for 8 weeks at this hospital.

In the unit, there are no shocked stares or weeping breakdowns at seeing the patients from the hospital staff.  It is a business as usual when a badly injured child comes in for an operation to create eyelids and remove scar tissue that had immobilized his hand into a permanently closed fist, and needs resulting therapy work done.  Patients do not attempt to hide their scars at all in the ward.

Perhaps it is an unspoken rule in the unit, but patients and parents of these patients are treated like human beings, as they should, without an ounce of pity or judgment.

However, things get complicated when the patients exit the unit, both for the patients and the hospital workers.

As the crowd gathers in the courtyard. Censored with photoshop.

Earlier this week, the physical therapy director, Miss Jiang, decided to take the pediatric patients in the unit out to sing and play in the outdoor hospital courtyard nearby.  Immediately we were greeted with stares of amazement or pity.  Many onlookers circled around the gathering.  Chinese people are a very curious bunch, and even the sight of Shira and Haley, the two Caucasian American PT students I am translating for, has garnered many a stare from the locals here.

For the patients, going outside was an ordeal.  Many elected to wear long sleeved shirts and some hid their faces with masks and hats.  The clinicians continued to act happy and cheerful, even as the onlookers gathered and stared.  But I sensed a little bit of awkwardness and discomfort from the clinicians, perhaps deriving from the dichotomy between the shocked onlookers and the cheerful clinicians, with the clinicians trying to compensate for the negativity expressed by the onlookers, and knowing that it wouldn’t get rid of the stares anyway.

This brings me to the main point of this post.  How should one act when interacting with these patients who are “wearing their deformities in the open?”

The approach that I have always done is to not bring up any perceived inferiority and treat them as human beings.  They are not monsters as a result of their scars, and need friendship, food, and all the other things any other human needs to survive.  I have also applied this when meeting famous and distinguished people as well; while my peers have often been awestruck at meeting a celebrity, I have always treated them like I would when meeting another person.  As the name of the popular children’s book is called, “Everyone Poops.”  We are all people living in the same planet, breathing the same air, and using the same toilets.

Even women too.

“Deformities” may have a negative connotation, but I believe that everybody carries deformities with them, things they carry with them that they may have no control over that are contrary to societal norms.  Shira and Haley would not be stared at in America, where it is commonplace to see white women, but onlookers here even ask to take pictures of them.  There is no such thing as a perfect person, and these deformities are what make people unique; the patients I work with manifest their deformities in a more physical manner.  If a newborn is an amorphous piece of clay, life experiences are what deform them and shape them into the people they are as they grow up.  As far as I think, it would be better if everyone wore their deformities in the open and embraced them.  Because of my approach towards meeting people, I have not really been shocked at the sight of these patients even though I have never seen patients burned this badly before.

On one end of the spectrum, we have the people who will view such patients as monstrosities and freaks, while on the other side we have people who view them as perfect creations, getting extremely offended when onlookers stare or refer to them as burn “victims”.  I can understand both sides of the spectrum. Injuries like these are not common, and stares are to be expected.  These patients can also sometimes be self-conscious, and want to be called beautiful, something that they will most likely never be called.

Is there a concrete “right” way to interact with these patients?  Probably not, and it’s always something that should be determined on a per person basis.  But it is always important to remember there is never an “us versus them”, a burned versus non-burned, mentality.

Like it or not, we are all humans who try to hide our deformities to try to fit in with the rest of society.

The “normal” ones are just better at hiding them than others.

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