The lacking body part
Together with seven colleagues, I went on a one-week seminar to France. The other participants in the course came from all over the world. We soon bonded and ended up spending our evenings together. After dinner, we would sit in the hotel garden, or on a pub terrace with Pau castle as a backdrop, and tell stories. This little gem came from one of our Chinese classmates.
Half a year earlier, he had moved from China to the UK with his bride. Upon their arrival in London, the fresh expats were offered a full medical check-up. The forms arrived in the mail and the couple were asked to tick the tests they wanted done. “Best to tick as many as possible,” they thought. A wise strategy.
When comparing notes, they saw that the forms were not identical. “Something’s missing on mine,” the guy said. “It’s probably just a mistake. I’ll insert it by hand.” He took his pencil and added the item, with a neat little square box next to it, which he ticked: “Smear test, yes please.”
A week later, at the hospital, a young nurse at the reception desk glanced at his form. She pointed at the handwritten item and said: “I’m afraid there is a mistake here, sir. This will not be possible.”
“Why not? My wife is getting one, I want one, too. I have rights,” he said. He tried to look very determined and intimidating. From where the nurse was standing, he was succeeding quite well.
The nurse blushed, stammered a few words and fled the room, close to tears. In came the next nurse. The scenario repeated itself. The Chinese guy wasn’t ready to give up easily. He hadn’t come all the way from China to be treated unfairly. As they would say in Flanders: “Met alle Chinezen, maar niet met den dezen!”
“Maybe we could step into the surgery, we can talk there,” the second nurse suggested.
Oh no, that was not going to happen! This outrageous injustice was not going to be swept under the carpet! Let the whole waiting room be his witness!
One nurse led to another. None of them seemed to be able to cope. Three nurses later, a doctor arrived. Finally a reasonable person with the necessary authority – a man-to-man talk was exactly what was called for!
“What seems to be the problem, sir?” the doctor asked.
“I am a bit frustrated about your nurses’ attitude, doctor! All I want is a smear test.”
“You can’t have one,” the doctor said.
“That is not fair! Why can’t I have a smear test?”
The doctor lost his patience: “Because I’m pretty sure you don’t have a womb, and by the look and the sound of you, I’m almost one hundred per cent certain that you don’t have a vagina through which we could go start looking for one, but if you insist, we could always give it a try.”
The Chinese guy went quiet. He was taken aback by the severe tone in the doctor’s voice, and was there maybe a hint of sarcasm there as well? He was also overwhelmed by the length of the sentence: so many words spoken in one single breath! He wasn’t sure he had understood every word. Especially that “womb”-thing puzzled him. But somewhere along the line he had heard a word for an anatomical device that sounded vaguely familiar, and he was eager to confirm that, indeed, he did not have one of his own.
In the waiting room, the other patients kept staring at their newspapers and smartphones with straight faces, living up to their British stiff upper lip reputation.
After he had his tests done, the Chinese guy went home and looked up the mysterious word in his dictionary. It was not that simple. He looked for “Woom” and for “Whoom” and for “Wuum”. English spelling can play dirty tricks on you.
A couple of hours later, his wife got home. She told him everything he wanted to know – and rather a lot more – about smear tests. He was relieved that he had not insisted any further.
Five years have passed since we were in Pau. I cannot remember the guy’s name and I only have a vague recollection of what he looked like, but I do remember the story, as I remember many fairy tales and anecdotes I have heard since early childhood. Such is the power of storytelling.
That is why speeches and presentations, guided tours and, yes, even annual reports should always be built around stories. Forget about dates and graphs and statistics. Your audience will do so anyway. It is the stories that stick. Whether about smear tests and wombs, or about other joys of life.
(With thanks to Gry Oppedal for the pictures)