Thursday, August 13, 2009

Soldier Boy

My cell phone text msg read: "I'm in PLA hospital, receiving drips. Outside soldiers r drilling, singing 'strength is iron, strength is steel.'"

It was from a coworker whose bout with tonsillitis had laid her low for a few days. Being a mostly traditional Chinese woman albeit with some western education and exposure, she'd taken the usual route of having her ailment treated with a mix of "Traditional Chinese Medicine" (hot cupping, unspecified herbal treatments) and an expensive IV drip (100 yuan or $14.60 a shot) that delivered saline solution and supposedly reduced her fever.

The IV drip culture at Chinese hospitals is enormous, so much so that there are drip junkie hypochondriacs who repeatedly haunt the wards where dozens upon dozens of people lie on identical gurneys getting their fix of saline solution medicinal bliss. A perceived cure-all and definite moneymaker for the hospitals, it was 40 yuan a fix when I first arrived and us now hitting 100 at the exclusive People's Liberation Army hospital in Beijing

I've never had one though the few times I've been unlucky enough to have to use a Chinese hospital I've been urged to lie down and get pinned for everything from a small cut (4 stiches) on my forehead to a stomach rash.

But I digress. It was the comfort she took in hearing soldiers drilling outside the ward as she was trying to recover from a 101 or so degree fever that intrigued me.

I was a very reluctant member of the US army ('72-'75, 2nd Army Division, Signal Corps, Camp Casey, ROK) and no stranger to saluting, standing at attention, at ease, drilling and chanting inspiring patriotic basic training ditties such as, "If I die on the Russian front, bury me in a Russian cunt, one-two, three-four ... " and "I don't know but I've been told, Eskimo pussy is mighty cold, count-off, one-two.."

But I and most vets thankfully left that behind long ago. I've also been a civilian patient in a VA hospital, but the closest I came to any quasi military presence there were a couple of friendly American Legion members who distributed silver dollars and crossword puzzle books to patients on Easter.

As I told my coworker, the idea of soldiers drilling outside a hospital ward gives me the creeps. China's different, of course. The PLA is part of the nation's fabric and children are taught how to march in orderly lines beginning in kindergarten. It's cute and also a little scary to see. Many college and high school students have compulsory military training - normal stuff for them. Just part of the deal.

The affection for military culture might also be explained through the entertainment propaganda mainline. While movies and TV shows about Mao's armies defeating the Japanese and Chai Kai-shek's nationalist forces are abudant, the People rarely if ever lose and if they do it's only a temporary setback until final victory is won. Losses are little known here such as China's own debacle in Vietnam in a bloody, brief border war in 1979. The PLA had its arse handed to it by the NVA, though the nation claims "victory" when the war is mentioned at all.

There is no Johnny Got His Gun, MASH, Catch 22, Apocalypse Now,Born on the 4th of July, Full Metal Jacket or even Hogan's Heroes equivalent ... only noble victory and clean quick deaths for the common good.

I spared her my half-baked "China needs its MASH" theory and sent a message wishing her well though still saying I had the heebiejeebies with the idea of soldiers chanting revolutionary slogans outside a hospital ward.

"Cultural difference," she replied."We Chinese like our soldiers. Their marching and chanting boosts morale and enhances bonds with civilians. It instills strength and inspires us to recover soon."

Me? I'd rather watch Apocalypse Now, which I did after that exchange. She's back at work now, though. Score one for the healing power of the PLA.