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In a Hospital Room, with Trump Near and Far Away ⋆ Epeak . Independent news and blogs

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Last week, my mother’s home health aide Zhou asked me whether I thought that her own medical insurance might be imperilled by Chuan Pu. Chuan Pu is the Chinese rendering of Donald Trump, a man whose election had gone nearly unmarked in the specially equipped hospital room where my mother lives, with A.L.S., and where Zhou spends a third of her week, rotating with two other health aides. This is the twilight zone where I spent a good number of my waking hours, and where our President’s fulsome tweets and decrees usually cannot find me. Here, patients who breathe on ventilators and the people who care for them do not have time for Trump. And I am grateful for the reprieve.

Zhou’s question, though, which she uttered with a creased mouth and a piece of paper she could not read flapping between her fingers, pierced the boundary between the hospital walls and the world beyond—one which I had nearly believed to be impenetrable. Like my mother, Zhou has Medicaid. Unlike my mother, she is a healthy fifty-five-year-old used to toiling with her hands, for whom the relevant, legible America is neatly inscribed within a set of three coördinates: her daughter-in-law’s Chinese-takeout restaurant, the Flushing street where she lives with her extended family, and the Harlem hospital where she works.

If I had asked Zhou back in November what she made of the election, she might have flashed a friendly, agnostic smile. The difference between Hillary Clinton and Trump would have seemed as trivial as that between the animated blue and red jellies in her favorite game, Candy Crush. The news stories that tend to draw Zhou’s attention are of the sensational sort. In this respect, she has something in common with our current President. She tells me the things she has learned: “Did you know that a man has lived to the age of three hundred by eating ginseng?” “Vinegar is better for cleaning toilets than any store-bought spray!” Whenever I express my skepticism, Zhou merely winks. “I know it is so because I read it online,” she responds.

But I have never known Zhou to lie on purpose, unlike our President. Despite her lack of a formal education (she left school before completing fifth grade), she is a perceptive pupil when it comes to nursing. Hard work almost never fazes her. She is tenacious, in the un-self-pitying manner of an immigrant who has accepted the challenges of survival and inevitable change without lament. The elephantine nature of American bureaucracy may elude her, but Zhou has learned harder truths. “You were not born in the villages,” she tells me. “You do not know how hard life can be.” Her rural birthplace was where, before coming to America, she lost a teen-age son to pancreatic cancer.

As a fellow-immigrant, albeit one with the advantages that education brings, I would like to think that I have some inkling of her dual sense of alienation and oblivion. It is the kind of oblivion that, by virtue of linguistic and cultural barriers, breeds disengagement. It fosters, as it were, a cocooned reality. Global and domestic affairs do not ordinarily touch Zhou, who has never paid for a newspaper. I am one of the few English speakers Zhou knows, and am the de-facto translator for all English-language mail. Most of it is from the government—Social Security, the Medicaid office, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—whose ways remain as indecipherable to Zhou as the English language. How do benefits change from one month to the next? Why do some of them inexplicably terminate? More than once, I have thought that these changes must strike Zhou as senseless, unpredictable, the kind of paranormal phenomena governed by the same mercurial physical laws that enable one man to live until three hundred and give others a mere fraction of that time.

Chuan Pu, then, constitutes one of these mystical occurrences: an orange-haired firebrand who on a vindictive whim can upend the architecture of Zhou’s known universe. The worrying bits of information that have trickled to her in recent days—from her in-laws, her Fujianese neighbors, and the free Chinese-language newspapers that she has started picking up along with supermarket circulars—are unsettling. Is it true that the government will cut back the health care of those with low incomes? Can those without citizenship really be deported? And her children—and grandchildren—what will happen to them?

I have thought of our calliopean President often in recent days: his pervasiveness in the world and his perversion of it. I think of him in conjunction with Zhou, the kind of person whom he may never notice but whose life his confounding edicts can irrevocably affect. I think of the separate realities they inhabit, the ways in which they are both untethered from certain facts, if for profoundly different reasons. An immigrant fears what is beyond her control. Our President instills fear in order to maintain control.

I have no doubt that Zhou will unquestioningly accept whatever edicts I decipher for her in the official letters, which will continue to arrive from an authority she has never met. Rejection and protest require comprehension of our labyrinthine political system, and that makes both of them luxuries.

There are times when I walk into the quiet of my mother’s hospital room and feel as if I’m passing between worlds. Outside, it roils, a surreal reality in which the most powerful man in America seems to be waging war on the very values upon which the country was built. And inside are the quarantined quarters where men and women are fighting just to keep on breathing.

“Did you not work today?” Zhou asks me whenever I show up in sweats, with my hair in a rat’s-nest tangle. I tell Zhou that I did, and she smiles. I can tell that she only half believes me. After all, what kind of job allows you to work from home and keep such odd hours? What good are you to the world if you do not work to build it? You do not know how hard life can be. Never once has Zhou asked me what I write about. (I told her that I would write about her.) Presumably, the answer seems to her as irrelevant in its detail as the inner workings of the country where she has made her home, one which she might have always found inscrutable but in which she has placed her most unquestioning faith. It is a faith that I hope is justified—as much for her sake as for all of ours.



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