It wasn’t until a whole week later that I found out my mother had had a stroke.
She’d been a typical Chinese mother about it, not telling any relatives about her illness. She didn’t want to trouble anyone: She didn’t tell my two cousins because she thought they were busy caring for their young child. She didn’t tell me, her only child, because she didn’t want me to change my plans — applying to a Ph.D. program and continuing to write fiction in English. I found out only after her health took a turn for the worse — after she went to the hospital a bit too late and didn’t receive very good treatment, and I was told that she, not yet 60, would probably have trouble walking for the rest of her life.
I was paralyzed, both by the horrible news and by the unbearable weight of motherly love. I talked with my cousin and was told not to come back. “There’s nothing you can do,” he said. “Even if you get on the next plane.”
And so I set about trying to help from afar, where I soon discovered that there was still very little I could do. I tried to secure her a specialist appointment at Huashan Hospital, one of the best public hospitals in Shanghai, only to discover that they were full till the end of August. You could still make an appointment, but only if you knew somebody on the inside — only if you had enough “guanxi,” the network of connections and relationships that make China function.
I should have had some guanxi. I’m a graduate of Fudan University, the most renowned university in Shanghai; a lot of my fellow alumni are probably in the process of rising to important positions in that very hospital right now. If I had followed the advice of older family members and socialized more in college, I would have a long list of “useful friends” whom I could call. I don’t. I made very few friends in college, real friends, whom I bonded with based on our shared values and interests. The only friend I could think of was my dorm mate, Y.C., but like my mother, I felt reluctant to inconvenience her. She is pregnant. And I didn’t want her to face the same moment of truth that I was facing — have I made “useful” friends that I can ask for a favor?
I had a second chance at building guanxi, one that I also let pass me by. After graduation, I taught literature at a prestigious local high school for more than five years. It was an open secret that only those who were born into privileged families could get in there. Some colleagues of mine went so far as to keep an Excel spreadsheet of all the parents’ job titles and contact information, just in case. The previous principal liked to boast about the guanxi he had via those parents. “When my father needed heart surgery,” he said once in a faculty meeting, “I asked my secretary to locate a parent who worked at the president’s office in Huashan Hospital. And I soon found one.” But over the course of my teaching career in Shanghai, I wanted to use my spare time for my fiction writing, so I refused to take on jobs that would have required frequent contact with parents outside of the classroom. Besides, I found the idea of “making use of” my students slightly distasteful. Now I regret it.
A man who is courting me has tried to help, too. He asked about my mother’s situation and put me in contact with his middle-school classmate, who is now an eminent vascular surgeon. “Let me ask an M.B.A. classmate too,” he said. “He developed an app for making online appointments with doctors.” Two days later, however, his surgeon classmate hadn’t responded, and my friend fell silent, ashamed of his uselessness.
Without guanxi, it all boils down to money, of course. One of best things to do would be to get my mother a good rehab nurse, since I’m not around and since my father does little housework. It’s not difficult to find a good nurse in Shanghai, but it will cost a great deal, and my mother would refuse such a suggestion without hesitation. As a graduate student, I am not making real money. Even worse, as a writer, I will probably never make real money. And my father, who has earned minimum wage as a janitor ever since the central government shut down state-owned enterprises in the 1990s and caused millions of layoffs nationwide, can’t be of much help.
Before my mother’s illness, I spurned what I saw as an excess of pragmatism among Chinese people, who want to ensure that all of their efforts go toward something useful. College degrees, jobs, friendships, marriages — all these should be chosen practically. “Be wise, pick an able man. Love doesn’t feed you,” my people like to say. Looking back on my high school years, all my relatives tried to talk me, a top-ranking student, into majoring in science or finance in college. But I was stubborn enough to stay with my favorite subject, literature. Now I understand them. They knew very well that in life, things can easily fall apart, and that those degrees are a promise of a steady, good-paying job, and perhaps a ticket to freedom, too.
I know I shouldn’t take everything so personally. It’s China’s institutions, after all, that are to blame. Why do we have so few options for good medical treatment, such limited education resources, such narrow career paths? Why do we need to be rich or have guanxi merely to enjoy access to very basic public services? Instead of desperately chasing connections or money, we should work together to address these social and political issues.
But that takes too long, and too many things cannot wait, so instead we do things the other way around. The latest vaccine scandal, for example, prompts anxious parents to think about how to get their children shots in Hong Kong or a foreign country, rather than how to put pressure on the central government. After every social tragedy, victims are subjected to disdain on social media, rather than sympathy: “this happened to you because you are a loser; because you don’t have the right connections; because you are not making enough money.” With time, that sort of thinking starts to take hold: If I’m rich enough, my children can get imported powdered milk instead of tainted Chinese formula; if I’m rich enough, my children will not be put in kindergartens where they’re subjected to abuse, forced to strip and stabbed with needles; if I’m rich enough, my children can be citizens in America, where the vaccines are safe. We feel guilty about the things that we shouldn’t feel guilty about.
My mother, too, blames herself — “Why am I getting sick at such a moment, one that might change my daughter’s life?” I recently spoke with her over a video call where I told her that I wanted to get her a wheelchair. “I don’t need one,” she said. “I can walk. Slowly and unsteadily.” I insisted my father take a cab to run errands for my mother, but he again rode his electric bike across the city on a stifling summer day.
“Don’t worry about me,” my mother said, smiling through the cellphone camera lens. “Pursue your dream in America.” I know my tears are useless. My promise is useless. Even my decision-making is useless. Whether I choose to go back home and take care of her or stay in the United States and keep reaching for my dream, sooner or later, I will regret either choice. I will scold myself for not having enough courage to take the other path.
Jianan Qian is a fiction writer from Shanghai.