In the rural Midwest of the United States, a man trudges up a hill, stopping every few minutes to catch his breath. He's not so old, late 30s, thin (at least in parts) and keeps active. Never smoked. But lately he struggles to get anywhere and has a nagging pain in his leg.
Stopping for breath at an intersection, his eyes rest on the familiar gas station. Just need some energy, he thinks, and enters.
"You okay, Tom?" the clerk asks, eyeing the gasping customer. She herself is past middle age but fit and youthful looking.
"Yeah, sure. Just old before my time, that's all." He musters a smile.
"Yeah, I know the feeling." She still eyes him warily as she bags his candy bar and Coke. "Take care of yourself."
"Always do," he smiles again and leaves, feeling momentarily energized. He tries not to let on to anyone, much less himself, that he is worried. Thinking he might just be out of shape, he has taken to walking more. But he only gets more tired. His wife has been nagging him to get help. Damn doctors never did nothin for me, Tom tells her. She just nods, apparently understandingly.
Tom finishes his trek, arriving home to the aroma of his wife's cooking. Mmm, fried chicken and potato. He smacks his lips hopefully. Entering the kitchen, instead he sees an assortment of vegetables and, ick, brown rice. Turning his head toward the table, in the place of his setting is a stack of papers.
"Dinner in a few minutes." Tamara is stirring food on the stove, her brown pigtail bobbing. "Have a seat."
He is already heading toward the papers, scrunching up his nose at the smell - if you can call it that - of steaming vegetables.
Mmm, Kale. On the other side of the world, in bustling downtown Beijing, Renzhen is hungry. The hunger and the sight of what will appease it allay his nervousness. He is in a private room of your cardboard-cut-out up-scale restaurant, the youngest of the several colleagues there. Most are older and advanced up the hierarchy. Some are Party officials. He sits, waiting for what will come soon.
What's first is the kale, with spicy tofu, tomato shrimp, and various meat and vegetable dishes, more than these men will ever eat, with a sprinkling of fried scorpion and king crab to show they have money and eclectic taste.
This part Renzhen likes. He can't imagine anything better, and better for you, than Chinese food. What he hates is what soon follows. The small talk with people who never otherwise even look at him. The waste of all this food - no one will take it home, they are Rich, after all.
What he hates is the smoking and drinking. There is no getting away from it. It's at meals where it's worse. But it pervades all of life. One does not climb the social ladder or get guanxi without it. Offering a smoke to someone forms a connection to them. And drinking, well, that's a competition.
He shakes his head. He was raised to take care of himself, his mother making sure he had money in college for more than just instant noodles. He has always been skinny, but healthy. But then, this. He feels trapped and helpless, listening to the sounds of his boss singing karaoke, if you can call it singing.
Hours later, when he goes home to the one-room so-called apartment he shares with a colleague, the smell of smoke and bai jiu still on his breath, he is wired and quietly logs on to the Internet.
Back in the US, sitting at the dinner table, Tom is feeling angry. How dare she! His wife has printed off page after page of information from medical web sites. All have to do with his symptoms and their possible meaning. He throws them back on the table and walks outside toward the chicken coop.
Diabetes! He stomps his feet, his back to the house, but sensing somehow that Tamara is watching. That's the word that keeps popping up on these sites. I don't got no damn diabetes. He kicks at the coop and feels slightly better for it.
"I'm just concerned, honey." He looks up sharply to see his wife. "I don't want to lose you." He softens slightly but his anger is not gone. "You - we - are lucky," she continues. "So many people suffer terrible things. But this, if it is something like diabetes, can be fixed. We can still live a long life together."
Tom thinks of Kevin, just off to college. Thinks of not being around to see him get married, have kids of his own, or whatever he chooses to do. Then thinks of Tamara, alone.
"Give me some time," is all he can manage.
Renzhen is amazed. The alcohol is wearing off as the tea goes in and he is staring at his computer, clicking periodically. His roommate has roused and joined him.
So many other people, he had no idea. All complaining about what they have to do to get ahead at work. Most avoid criticism of the Party, but there are plenty of other things to complain about. These dinners, which one is supposed to be grateful for. The smoking and drinking, of course.
One member of a forum has proposed setting up a sort of informal "union", to offer support and campaign against such practices. Rhenzhen sends him an email.
One year later…
Back in Beijing, Rhenzhen still attends the work functions, and still works hard to forge connections. But he declines smokes and limits the booze. Now, when chatting to a colleague or a driver, he offers nuts or another snack instead of a cigarette. He has become active in the Internet group and has found support with his colleagues.
In the rural Midwest, a man still trudges up a hill. But now he has a spring in his step. After some weeks of thought, Tom finally went to a doctor. Found out that with a few diet and other lifestyle changes, he could beat the diabetes and didn't have to feel so old and in pain. He still walks every chance he gets. And when he gets to the gas station, temptation still always hits, but he keeps on walking, pausing only if the red man tells him to.
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