China left it’s mark on me in more ways than one. I have been mentally, spiritually, and physically altered by my time in the country. This is the story of how I earned one such mark.
Content Warning: This story contains graphic descriptions of a hand injury.
Recently someone asked me to open a jar for them. I had to explain why I couldn’t help. People have made the joke that I am useless now, being unable to do the minimum expected of a man.
If you were to look at the palm of my left hand, the first thing you would notice is a large white scar. You may also notice the second, slicing across the bottom of my palm. If it were a centimetre lower I would have bled out from the wrist that day. You probably won’t notice the third scar. It’s smaller and snips the skin between my ring finger and little finger.
Muscles and nerves being torn apart never fully heal, even after being stitched back together. The pain that often shoots across my hand and into my little finger is a permanent reminder of that day.
It all started with a group calling themselves JCJH. They were a group of Burners based in Shanghai that would organise street jams. Many people would show up, some bringing instruments – djembes, guitars, handpans, harmonicas – and we would wander the streets, jamming at every opportunity. We would play music, sing, dance, and get merry.
Another group of Burners based in Nanjing expressed interest in starting their own version – Jing Jam. When they announced their first event, I decided to travel there as a sort-of ambassador for JCJH.
I met my friend Nell, along with a few other Burners, in a cafe near Nanjing University. Since most of the Burners here were students, we were to set up the even in the University grounds. As this was the first event it was a smaller group, but the event still went well. I spent some time perfecting some new moves with the poi as others played music. I was looking forward to showing off my new moves when I got back to Shanghai. Unfortunately I wouldn’t get the chance.
As we performed for ourselves it started raining. We hoped to wait it out, but it just got heavier. There was an indoor gym nearby that we could use so we decided to go there to avoid the rain. I packed my empty beer cans and a now-half-empty bottle of whisky into my bag. I picked up the can I was working on and I noticed that someone had left a full bottle of beer behind, so I picked that up as well.
We said hello to the bao’an (a Chinese security guard) on our way inside the building. The gym we were heading to was underground. I followed the others down the stairs. I was slightly drunk. I had both hands full. My feet were wet. So I slipped.
Everything seemed to happen in slow motion. As I fell I remembered I had a glass bottle in my left hand. As I landed on the ground I felt the bottle smash in my hand. There was no pain at all. “Thank God”, I thought, as I pulled myself back to my feet. I looked at my hand to make sure it was okay.
I saw a hole surrounded by torn skin and muscle. I swear I could see bone, but that may be a false memory. There was no blood at first, but it started pooling very quickly. Eventually it filled the hole and started spilling over the side of my hand.
Time seemed to speed up again as I started panicking. I screamed and ran back up the stairs, clutching my bloody wrist with my right hand. I showed it to the bao’an, begging with my eyes for help. Then I ran to a nearby sink to wash away the blood (in hindsight I know how stupid this was – I was asking for an infection by doing this). The blood kept coming, so I started running to the exit.
Nell grabbed me before I could leave and forced some tissue into my hand. She looked at me and told me that her dad was a doctor. “This isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” she said, “we just need to keep pressure and get you to a hospital.” This calmed me down enough to start thinking straight. I gripped my hand tight, holding the tissue in place. This slowed and eventually stopped the bleeding, while Nell set about ordering a taxi to the hospital.
Side note: I later found out that although Nell’s father is a doctor, he’s actually a gynaecologist. She was lying about having seen injuries like mine before, but she had seen “a lot of gammy vaginas” as she put it. But, she knew what I need to hear in that moment, and it worked.
One of Nell’s Chinese friends kept me company while we waited for a taxi. Her name was Xuye. As we talked the bao’an pulled up next to us on his moped, gesturing for me to get on. Xuye told me I should get on and she’ll follow me to the hospital in the taxi. Since I had to maintain pressure on my hand, I had to ride the back of the moped “side-saddle”. The bao’an sped off to the hospital at a speed that felt too fast to me. I clutched my hand, eyes closed, praying that he didn’t crash, or that I didn’t fall off.
Thankfully, my prayers seemed to be answered, as we made it to the hospital safely. I walked to the entrance not really knowing what to do next. My Chinese wasn’t great so I was worried about communication. Then again, I thought, the bloody hand should make it obvious what I needed.
Xuye arrived just after me, and she explained to the front desk what was happening and paid my bills for me. I was given a proper bandage so I wouldn’t need to keep the pressure myself. They then X-Rayed my hand to check for any shards of glass. Thankfully there were none. Now we just need to wait for the surgeon so I could get stitches.
The medical staff were efficient, but there was no real bedside manner like you’d expect in the UK. Then again, this could easily have been a language barrier thing. I was just happy to be getting treatment.
The first thing the surgeon did was remove my temporary bandage. Blood started pooling again. I noticed that the blood would ooze out in regular “pumps”, which must have matched my heartbeat. Xuye gave me the strangest compliment I’ve ever received: she told me that I have beautiful blood.
The surgeon injected me with a local anaesthetic. I could feel that it wasn’t working – it was probably just coming out of my hand alongside the blood. He tried it a second time after he tested if I could feel anything. This one didn’t work either. I knew he had to give me stitches either way. I’m good at dealing with pain, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to deal with this.
I turned to Xuye and I asked her, “This might be a weird question, but could I hold your hand?” Without hesitation she grabbed my hand. It was a comfort to know that someone, who was basically still a stranger to me, cared about me. I braced myself for the pain.
The surgeon started with the larger hole in the middle. He used a curved needle to force the thread through the flesh. The pain was intense, piercing, searing. Every millimeter it moved through sent another jolt of aganosing pain. I screamed louder than I have ever screamed, swearing more than a sailor on a bad day. I squeezed Xuye’s hand, and it must have hurt her too. But she didn’t let go.
Eventually the surgeon closed the first hole. There was a lot less blood now so I could see the other holes in my hand. The one close to my wrist had bits of yellow goo sticking out of it. I guessed that this was fat. I wondered what the surgeon would do with this. He just ripped it off and threw it to one side before going back to stitching my hand up.
By this time Nell had also followed us to the hospital. Her and Xuye were now taking it in turns to hold my hand. I don’t know if I was hurting them, but it probably helped that they could take a break now.
The whole process felt like an eternity of pain. I felt like I had 1000 stitches, though it was less than a dozen. Eventually the surgeon moved to the cut between my two fingers. This one seemed to hit a nerve. Literally. It was the most painful of all. But after this, it was over.
They bandaged my hand back up, and followed up by giving me a tetanus shot, then putting me on an IV drip. In China it’s common for antibiotics to be administered this way. It’s technically more effective, but it’s possible they just do it so they can charge more. Either way, Nell and Xuye sat with me as we waited for the drip to end. We took a picture together to send to the Jing Jam group chat so everyone knew I was okay.
Xuye told me that despite everything, she had actually enjoyed spending time with me that night. The next day we explored Nanjing together. We connected, but it was never meant to go any further. Living in two different cities made it difficult to pursue a long term friendship.
Still, every time I feel that pain in my hand I am reminded of my short time in that hospital. I am reminded of the music we played in China. And I am reminded of someone who, without hesitation, did everything she could to help a total stranger in need.
Some scars are worth the pain.