Periodically I visit an acupuncturist for aches and pains. He’s a charming Chinese man who finds it a little hard to get his tongue round the English language, but he has a gentle manner, a lovely smile, and he fixes me every time.
Until recently I knew relatively little about him other than that he came to the UK eight or nine years ago and he’s in his forties, married with two children. Then, last time I went to see him, I asked him how he came to be a doctor. This is what he told me:
‘When I was a teenager two of my grandparents died, one on each side of the family. I was upset not just because I loved them, but because they needn’t have died. But where we lived there wasn’t the medical help that would have saved them.
‘My father was a teacher and he wanted me to follow him in his career. But when it was time to leave school I decided that I wanted to study medicine so I could do my bit to make sure my other two grandparents lived good long lives.
‘I got a place at university but when I arrived there I discovered they were teaching Chinese medicine. I’d done science at school and this was a whole new way of thinking. I hated it. I went home at half term – a nine-hour bus journey – and when I got there I burst into tears. I told my parents what the matter was, and my father was horrified. “You can’t quit,” he said. “You’re the first member of our family to go to university. Not just that, you’re the first person in the neighbourhood to go. Everyone here is so proud of you. Think of the shame.”
‘What could I do? I stuck it out and five years later I graduated, having studied both Chinese and Western medicine. I’d worked hard and I came top in my year. The head of my department was very pleased with me and wanted to give me a job, a good one. But it was 1990 and the previous year I’d organised the local support for the Tiananmen Square protesters. The head of the university was a party man. He wouldn’t allow me to be given the job. Instead I was sent to a big hospital in another region.
‘It was all right there. I was left alone and I liked the work. I ended up setting up and running a whole new department in the hospital. But I didn’t like the politics and when the chance eventually arrived to come to the UK I jumped at it.’ Here he stopped and gestured at the little treatment cubicle. ‘I don’t have a big job now,’ he said, ‘and I don’t earn a lot of money.’ Then he smiled. ‘But I am free.’
Next time I go to him for treatment I will see this delightful man in a completely different light. Such is the power of stories.