Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Chinese Optometrist

At one or the other unexpected event during one or the other unexpected stay, I somehow lost my glasses -so after explaining what I could to the harbor authorities (it wasn’t much of an explanation) I had to visit the Chinese Optometrist. The waiting room was one of the most peaceful and harmonious places I have ever been, nothing fancy, just a very quiet garden framed with the traditional red gate and Koi pond, reminiscent of the Slow Pavilions, with an excellent selection of cranes and magazines.

I fill out the appropriate forms, exchange pleasantries with the receptionist and put my name on the list. Soon, at the appropriately auspicious hour, to a strike of the gong, the Optometrist himself appears and makes a decorous bow. “Shur-Shur-Shurr” he says. This as good a time as any to mention that I do not speak Chinese. Also without my glasses, I cannot see. In fact, it is only by a series of highly logical, yet fallible inferences, that I have concluded I am at an optometrists at all.

Nonetheless, I like his face. He reminds me of my father. I find my father inscrutable, remote and ruthless (in a word, “asiatic”, “oriental”). He was a doctor, too. It must be the white coat. He gestures sociably. I want to make him happy, to please him. To cooperate.

It’s just like a visit to an American optometrist -only instead of an eye exam where you read the eye chart aloud and the optometrist rotates different lenses in and out of the phoroptor and you answer whether you can see “better” or “worse”, at the Chinese optometrist all wrong, incorrect or hesitant answers are requited with a sharp rebuke from a supple stick kept within easy reach in the little office. It doesn’t seem like such a bad stick -it has a pleasing finish and seems actually quite delicate in the optometrist’s strong surprisingly rough hands (toughened and coarse, as though the good doctor, an older gentlemen, had done hard labor early in life), but personified with an elastic quality that made it quite piquant. The blows are not administered maliciously, but seriously and regularly.

You might think that this places an undue pressure on the patient to perform or try to guess the right answer or otherwise cheat to avoid punishment, but from the Chinese perspective there are billions of Chinese, and almost all of them myopic and therefore simply no time to waste on a few malingerers who would otherwise clog the process. Almost everyone cheats. Charts and cheat sheets are easily bought and sold in the marketplace for memorization the night before. The receptionist will sell you one. These cheat sheets are also in Chinese. They are no use to me, even though I bought a laminated “For Dummies”-styled one. I do understand that Chinese is a tonal language, though, so I try to answer each stinging interjection of the stick with a different pitch. I am an instrument. I am being tuned. I have faith in the process even though it is painful. I have faith in the process, perhaps because it is painful. I believe that the tears that spill from behind the mask of the phoroptor are tears of growth, painful growth, because I am being taught a new language, because I am at last being made to see.