CRISPR - Joy and Horror
by Fred Dungan
Published and Formatted by DUNGAN BOOKS
All characters are fictional and any resemblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental.
No animals were hurt in the production of this novel.
For my granddaughter, Caitlin
CRISPR is an acronym which stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. CRISPR technology is a simple yet powerful tool for editing genomes. It allows researchers to easily alter DNA sequences and modify gene function. Its many potential applications include correcting genetic defects, treating and preventing the spread of diseases, and improving crops. However, its promise also raises ethical concerns.
One moral concern is that editing DNA creates gene drives. These are genetic systems which increase the chances of a particular trait passing on from parent to offspring. Eventually, over the course of generations, the trait spreads through entire populations. Alter enough DNA in an effort to improve human beings and geneticists could bring about the extinction of our species, much as Cro-Magnon man replaced Neandrathal man, but over a much shorter period of time. I predict that in the not-so-distant future our species, Homo Sapiens will be replaced by an improved species which for the sake of clarity, I am labeling Homo Aurelius.This will not necessarily be a tragedy since we all desire our descendents to live a better life than we had.
Perhaps civilization's greatest concern about CRISPR is that it is difficult to regulate. Any above average high school Biology student could learn its technique. Gene editing kits are being offered on the internet for as little as $150. In the wrong hands CRISPR could potentially be misused to create apocalyptic designer diseases as destructive (or more destructive) than the plagues that an angry God visited on Biblical Egypt.
In popular usage, "CRISPR" is shorthand for "CRISPR-Cas9." CRISPRs are specialized stretches of DNA. The protein Cas9 (or "CRISPR-associated") is an enzyme that acts like a pair of molecular scissors, capable of cutting strands of DNA.
CRISPR technology was adapted from the natural defense mechanisms of bacteria and archaea (the domain of single-celled microorganisms). These organisms use CRISPR-derived RNA and various Cas proteins, including Cas9, to foil attacks by viruses and other foreign bodies. They do so primarily by chopping up and destroying the DNA of a foreign invader. When these components are transferred into other, more complex, organisms, it allows for the manipulation of genes, or "editing."
The following novel was written to present both sides of the controversy over CRISPR. Because I was born an optimist, it is my opinion that the good that CRISPR can do for mankind will ultimately outweigh the bad.
Arlington District, Riverside, CA
December 11, 2019
CRISPR - CRISPRs are specialized stretches of DNA. The protein Cas9 (or "CRISPR-associated") is an enzyme that acts like a pair of molecular scissors, capable of cutting strands of DNA. CRISPR can edit strands of DNA and RNA to add or remove genes much as a movie can be edited to add or remove scenes.
eugenics - the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics. Developed largely by Francis Galton as a method of improving the human race, it fell into disfavor only after the perversion of its doctrines by the Nazis.
genome - the complete set of genes or genetic material present in a cell or organism.
variola major - There are two strains of smallpox virus. Variola major is the lethal strain, with a death rate of 30 percent.
variola minor - variola minor is the milder form of smallpox, with a death rate of less than one percent. Surviving infection from either strain provides cross-immunity, thereby having immunity to both variola major and minor.
Stem cells - are cells with the potential to develop into many different types of cells in the body. They serve as a repair system for the body. There are two main types of stem cells: embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells.
ocean gyre - a large system of circular ocean currents formed by global wind patterns and forces created by Earth's rotation. The movement of the world's major ocean gyres helps drive the "ocean conveyor belt." The ocean conveyor belt circulates ocean water around the entire planet.
Gregor Mendel (1822 - 1884), through his work on pea plants, discovered the fundamental laws of inheritance. He deduced that genes come in pairs and are inherited as distinct units, one from each parent. Mendel tracked the segregation of parental genes and their appearance in the offspring as dominant or recessive traits. Gregor Mendel was born in a German-speaking family in the Silesian part of the Austrian Empire (today's Czech Republic) and gained posthumous recognition as the founder of the modern science of genetics. Though farmers had known for millennia that crossbreeding of animals and plants could favor certain desirable traits, Mendel's pea plant experiments conducted between 1856 and 1863 established many of the rules of heredity, now referred to as the laws of Mendelian inheritance. Mendel worked with seven characteristics of pea plants: plant height, pod shape and color, seed shape and color, and flower position and color. Taking seed color as an example, Mendel showed that when a true-breeding yellow pea and a true-breeding green pea were cross-bred their offspring always produced yellow seeds. However, in the next generation, the green peas reappeared at a ratio of 1 green to 3 yellow.The profound significance of Mendel's work was not recognized until the turn of the 20th century (more than three decades later) with the rediscovery of his laws. Erich von Tschermak, Hugo de Vries, Carl Correns and William Jasper Spillman independently verified several of Mendel's experimental findings, ushering in the modern age of genetics.
"You wanna diamond necklace, I go and buy you a diamond necklace," stated Dominic Tavaglione. "You wanna wedding, I go and buy you a frilly white dress - lacey like a fancy French restaurant's tablecloth - and a wannabe Elvis marries us in a glitzy Las Vegas chapel. You want it, I go and buy it, but you ain't getting a kid - that's human trafficking, that will get me 20 to life. I don't deal in drugs or human beings. You wanna kid, you get him the same way anybody else does; dim the lights, put on a Frank Sinatra album, we pop the cork on a magnum of pink champagne, and follow the urge to merge. It's not like it's hard to do. You afraid of ugly stretch marks? Nowadays, doctors do wonders. I heard they can even guarantee a baby's sex and hair color. And it's legit."
"Since when did my Mr. Slick give a hoot about the law? You have yet to earn your first honest dollar," said Mrs. Tavaglione. "Adopting a child has nothing to do with human trafficking. "No one is going to arrest you for rescuing a child from the horrors of the foster care system."
"Go, do what you want to do. Go see a social worker, make an appointment with a doctor. No matter what I say, you always end up getting your way," Dominic complained. "Why should today be different than any other day? The past becomes the present just as the present passes on into the future. Why ask me for my opinion, if you have already decided what you are going to do?"
* * *
After completing the health history and financial responsibility questionnaire a medical assisstant had given her, she took a seat in the waiting room of the Whyte Clinic. Most of the staff and a few of the patients wore disposable face masks to keep from catching an Asian flu virus which had already infected a substantial percentage of the population. Mrs. Tavaglione was not the least bit concerned. She had confronted and prevailed against muggers, buggers, and thieves. She had inherited the .25 caliber nickle-plated pistol in her purse from her late aunt's estate. The women in her family were notoriously aggressive. She had no fear of falling victim to a, God forbid!, foreign virus.
* * *
Dr. Owen Ostrowski was seven months out of medical school. He had opted to do his residency at the Whyte Clinic because it stood at the leading edge of DNA/stem cell technology on the West Coast. Hardly a month ever passed by without at least one of its many research teams having published either an article, an update, or a review in a major medical journal.
However, prestige didn't do diddlysquat to pay Dr. Ostrowski's bills. His $50,000 first year residency salary sounded good, but not having much experience with money management, it simply drove him deeper in debt. Saddled with over $475,000 in student loans, what had initially looked like a bright future in medicine was now looking rather bleak. A paralegal informed him that student loans were seldom forgiven nor would they automatically be erased by declaring bankruptcy. Today, Owen was receiving Overdue Bill reminders from his bank. Tomorrow, he feared, it would metastasise into harrassing phone calls from collection agencies. He desperately needed a salary hike. There would be an $8,000 increase in his second year of residency. Good, but not nearly enough for Dr. Ostrowski to extricate himself from an insurmountable mountain of debt.
The Country Club lifestyle portrayed on television that doctors purportedly live, had provided the motivation for Owen to become a physician. Now, it was all crumbling before him. Dr. Ostrowski could not qualify to buy a new car, much less a new house. Financially speaking, he would have been better off if he had gone to work in an automobile assembly plant instead of going to medical college.
However, Owen Ostrowski was not entirely without blame for his financial predicament. The loans had been so easy to get that it was tempting to use them for other purposes. When a group of third year medical students spent their summer vacation in Maui, he decided to go with them. The pricetag for his frolic was $6,500. Graduation was celebrated by riding his motorcycle through Chernobyl. Why Chernobyl? At the time, it seemed like a daring thing to do. The Russian border guards who arrested him thought otherwise. He was deported to the United States after paying a $2,500 fine.
* * *
"Carmella Tavaglione," called a nurse from an open doorway. Mrs. Tavaglione stood up stiffly and walked towards the nurse who pointed to a long, narrow hallway and said "third door on the left." After weighing Carmella , the nurse took her pulse, blood pressure , and height, then left the exam room, stating, "Dr. Ostrowski will be with you shortly."
Fifteen minutes later, there came a knock on the exam room door and in stepped a tall, slender physician in a white lab coat.
"Good morning, Mrs. Tavaglione. I am Dr. Ostrowski. It says in your file that this is your first visit to the Whyte Clinic. What can we do for you today?"
"I saw an advertisement from the Whyte Clinic which claimed parents could choose the sex, eye color, and other features that their babies will be born with. I would like to know more about it," Carmella requested.
"We have a tool called CRISPR that can edit DNA, removing unwanted genes and replacing them with wanted genes which are then spliced onto the chromosome much like editors do with film - editing out the bad scenes and replacing them with good scenes. I should warn you that most insurance policies do not cover this procedure," Dr. Ostrowski affirmed. "Each additional change adds both to the price and the chance that something might go wrong."
"At what point does my husband enter into this," queried Mrs. Tavaglione.
"As soon as possible. It would speed up matters if you brought him with you to your next appointment," Dr. Ostrowski replied. "Also, everyone needs to be on the same page. Hopefully, you can reach a consensus. You can influence your family's future - for the next generation and infinite generations to come. DNA never forgets."
"My husband is of the opinion that pre-determining an infant's characteristics was part of the failed Eugenics experimentation that led to Nazi doctors being executed as war criminals at the Nuremburg trials," Carmella postured. "To him, that isn't a bad thing - my husband, Dominic has delusions of founding a new dynasty. Personally, I have no desire to ruin a gorgeous body that cost hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to create by turning it into a baby factory."
Dr. Ostrowski opened a drawer of his desk and took out some brochures which he handed to Mrs. Tavaglione, commenting "these will help your family to reach a consensus about which qualities you would like for your baby to have, keeping in mind that the editing procedure is rather expensive and involves a small degree of risk. Are there any other issues that we need to discuss?"
"Yes," answered Carmella Tavaglione, "it all seems wrong to me. God determines a baby's sex, hair color, height, blood type, and everything else about him. Now, a lab technician is going to contravene God's orders. That is blasphemy!"
"I wouldn't say that. God brings order to chaos. DNA is little more than a random assembly of proteins. By bringing useful order to DNA, lab technicians are doing good deeds designed to enhance the natural order of things. God does not want you to sit on your behind and whine. Get up and do something to make life better. Future generations will celebrate what we are doing," Dr. Ostrowski rebutted. "Some might argue that using CRISPR technology to edit DNA is tantamount to playing God. Nothing could be further from the truth. Scientists are humans. They are fallible, but they learn from their mistakes and move on."
"I will bring my husband to our next appointment," promised Carmella. "He's rather Old School."
* * *
In the two week period between Carmella's initial appointment and the follow-up appointment in which Dominic would be included, Mr. and Mrs. Tavaglione studied the Whyte Clinic's brochures and used them to determine the characteristics they most desired in a child. At first they couldn't reach agreement, but with time their disagreement became less emotional. They wrote a detailed description of the ideal child they had in mind. Dominic commented that "it's a bit like deciding which options to take on a new car, only it's a helluva lot more expensive."
* * *
"Here, Doc," uttered Dominic Tavaglione as he handed Doctor Ostrowski a sheet of yellow lined paper, headlined in Block Letters: 'OUR PERFECT CHILD.' "This is what me and the Missus agreed upon."
"You want a blue-eyed, blonde boy," stated Dr. Ostrowski as he covered the points written in painstakingly perfect longhand cursive almost as if it had been printed in a scripted font. "You also want him to be more than six feet tall at maturity, strongly built, wavy haired, above average intelligence, olive skinned, aqualine nosed, night-visioned, thick wristed, disease immune, Catholic with a thick, fourteen inch penis. I do not think we can make him religious, but I am rather certain we can edit his DNA in such a way as to produce the rest. My question to you is do you really want to go to the enormous expense of having the perfect child or are you willing to accept something slightly less?"
"Money is no object when it comes to creating a deserving heir," Mrs. Tavaglione countered. "My husband is fully capable of acquiring vast sums of currency. I would rather spend it on this than to squander it on gambling and cheap thrills."
"We just threw in the part about the penis as a last minute item," Dominic interrupted. "We thought it would make life somewhat easier for him."
"No problem," answered Dr. Ostrowski, "did you want fourteen inches at birth or at maturity? Flaccid or aroused?"
"All I meant about the fourteen inches is that I want my kid to be well hung. No wimps or palomitas in the Tavaglione Family. Not that there is anything wrong with alternate persuasions, it's just that Fruit Loops and Tavagliones don't mix. Besides, I am the one footing the bill, so what I say matters, kapish?"
"An associate of mine read a letter in Playboy Forum that said the more we alter DNA in our offspring, the more we run the risk of bringing about our own extinction," Dominic claimed. "It said that we, Homo Sapiens, would eventually not be able to breed with those of us with improved DNA, Homo Melius, at which point we would go the way of the dodo."
Dr. Ostrowski shook his head before replying, "There is one minor consolation. A small percentage of our DNA comes from extinct Neandrathals, in fact, some of our DNA can be traced back to each and every step of the evolutionary process, even to when we were one cell organisms billions of years ago. It's called Legacy DNA. Our descendents will always carry a small part of us with them. Rather than vanish, we will simply fade, fade away. But that is conjecture about the distant future, what you need to do is to take care of present business. I'm going to turn you over to a nurse who will take a sperm sample from Mr. Tavaglione. She will also have you sign an authorization form. Afterwards, the Medical Assistant at the front desk will handle the financial arrangements and scheduling your next appointment with me. Also, Mrs. Tavaglione will have to make an appointment for harvesting several eggs. I know that the DNA editing procedure can seem overly long. Your safety and that of the unborn child are of utmost importance here at the Whyte Clinic. Do you have any more questions? If not, I will see Carmella Tavaglione again in three weeks." Dr. Ostrowski shook hands with the soon-to-be-expectant couple and left the exam room shortly after introducing them to his nurse, Ms. Nit.
* * *
Nurse Nit conducted the Tavagliones to a nearby restroom, gave Dominic a small plastic bottle, and directed him to bring back a sperm sample.
"I'm sor-r-ry, I can-n't," stammered Dominic nervously, "No damn wankers in my family."
"What the . . .?" exclaimed Carmella. Then, addressing Nurse Nit, she asked, "Does this restroom lock from the inside?"
"I believe so," the nurse responded.
"I'll go in with him," Carmella stated authoritatively. "Wait here. This won't take long. I'll be back in five shakes with a sample."
True to her word, Carmella entered the restroom, locked the door, and ordered Dominic to drop his pants. Carmella proved herself a professional. Quickly taking charge, she obtained a sticky sample sometime between the fourth and fifth shake of her deft left palm.
* * *
Five weeks later, surgeons implanted a DNA edited embryo into Carmella's womb. Eight weeks following the implant, an ultrasound detected three heartbeats, indicating that Carmella would give birth to triplets.
"This happens sometimes in cases where the expectant mother took fertility drugs to get pregnant," the ultrasound technician explained.
It was a difficult pregnancy, but Carmella was able to carry all three fetuses full term. She gave birth to three identical boys, each with blonde hair, blue eyes, and above average height. Of particular interest was an outsized penis, a characteristic which all three shared in common.
Lynda Alvarez's vision slowly deteriorated following her birth to the point where a physician declared her legally blind seven months after her sixth birthday. She had been diagnosed with Leber congenital amaurosis, a disease which grew steadily worse until now on the eve of her 23rd birthday her world was one big blur - her sole comfort was that she could still tell light from dark.
Lynda's mother was busy in the kitchen, baking a chocolate cake and preparing guacamole for tomorrow's birthday party which for the most part would be attended by relatives and a few close friends.
Actually, the party was more for Lynda's mother than it was for Lynda. One of the consequences of being disabled is that the afflicted person, having, through no fault of their own, become dependent on others, frequently continues to be treated like a child long after attaining the age of majority even when their impairment is physical rather than mental. Lynda knew from past experience that it would be a child's birthday party - no alcohol, tobacco, or - heaven forbid - sex permitted. All that would be missing would be the hired clown and that was only because that role was reserved for Lynda (or so she felt). She longed to be free, but was resigned to having been sentenced to be blind for life with no chance of parole nor would she get time off for good behavior.
* * *
Jack Alvarez woke up with a splitting headache. He had gone to bed the previous night fully clothed after a bout with a bottle of tequila. Evidently, the bottle of tequila had won because the bottle was gone and the clock on the nightstand indicated he had less than an hour to get to his niece's birthday party. No time to shower, no time to shave, no time to buy a gift, but he had to be ontime or his sister would never forgive him. Seeing several Powerball Lottery tickets on the nightstand, he threw them in an empty box, wrapped the box in tissue paper, and taped a red bow left over from last Christmas ontop. What the hell, his niece was blind - with any luck, she wouldn't be able to tell the difference. He quickly combed his hair, grabbed the gift, and exited out the door. Yes, his niece could rely on Uncle Jack. He would always be there when she needed him.
* * *
Lynda's mother announced the gift giver's name, then handed her daughter the gift. After Lynda opened the gift, Lynda would feel it all over, declare what she thought it was, and thank the giver. This worked well for all of the gifts until they came to the one from Uncle Jack:
"This box is empty," exclaimed Lynda as she handed it back to her mother.
"No, there is a gift card or something at the bottom," corrected her mother, turning the open box upside down. Out fell two thin cardboard rectangles. "Two lottery tickets. Knowing Jack as I do, they are most likely losers just like him. You know how the saying goes, 'birds of a feather flock together.' How could you do it to her, Jack! Isn't it enough that you are addicted to gambling? Perro, now you are trying to infect su sobrina with your disease! How could you stoop so low? Sin verguenza."
Jack had grown used to his older sister berating him for what she regarded as "his deficiencies." She wasn't Jack's mother and he would continue to live the lifestyle he had chosen no matter what his older sister thought of it. Still, it rankled him that she was trying to poison Lynda's mind against him.
Lynda's mother placed the two lottery tickets on an end table next to a phone and promptly forgot about them.
When Lynda's mother brought out the birthday cake with 23 lit candles, Lynda could feel the heat from the candles, but to her it looked like a big blur topped by a single flame.
* * *
A week later, Jack heard on television that a local liquor store which he frequented had sold the winning Powerball Lottery ticket to an unidentified customer. In checking the numbers, Jack found that both tickets were winners, one for the GRAND PRIZE and the other for $12,000.
Jack phoned Lynda's mother. Since Lynda had accompanied her mother on a shopping trip, there was no one at home to answer it. Jack shouted into his cellphone that Lynda had won the $585 million GRAND PRIZE plus $12,000 on the second ticket. "It turns out that the lottery tickets were no more losers than I am. Have a bitchin' nice day!," Uncle Jack summed up.
At first Lynda's mother refused to believe that Lynda's tickets had actually won more than a half billion dollars. She figured it was just another one of her brother's tricks. Once when they were children Jack had convinced her that a hollow tree in their backyard was full of bees. She still avoided that type of tree even though years ago she had discovered that Jack had been funning her. It was not until a local TV station confirmed that Lynda had won the Powerball Lottery that her mother quit suspecting that Jack was playing a cruel joke on them.
Lynda had several options for cashing in the winning tickets. She could take the money in monthly checks and avoid paying millions of dollars in taxes or she could take it all in one lump sum and let the Internal Revenue Service take a big (more like giant) bite out of it. Lynda chose the latter. When a morning talk show host asked her what she intended to do with the money, she said she was willing to give it all to any doctor or hospital that could cure her blindness. "Help me to see," she pleaded. "All I want is to escape the darkness which surrounds me 24 hours a day. Nothing is worth more than watching a sunrise over the Pacific Ocean or a hummingbird in flight. Give me that and you can have the rest." To emphasize her point, she broke the band on a stack of twenty dollar bills and tossed them in the air as she exited stage right, cane in hand.
* * *
Lynda was determined to do everything she could to restore her sight, especially now that she could afford the best doctors and the latest cutting-edge treatments. She started by making an appointment with a gene therapy clinic that sponsored a wellness program on a Sunday morning radio show. An ad for the Whyte Clinic claimed that researchers had achieved a major breakthrough in the treatment of inherited diseases. She figured she might as well give the Whyte Clinic a try. It was as good a place as any to start.
* * *
"Good afternoon," said the physician as he entered the exam room. "I'm Dr. Ostrowski," he continued, extending his hand in greeting. Then, seeing the white cane that was leaning against his patient's lap, he quickly withdrew it."According to your chart, you are looking to restore your vision. The Whyte Clinic is currently conducting a study in which we are seeking to cure hereditary blindness by means of gene therapy and infusions of stem cells. Participation is voluntary. Since most insurance plans will not pay for treatment we offer a modest stipend to cover travel expenses. Would you like to take part in our study? It involves bi-weekly appointments over a six to nine month period.
"Of course, I would love to take part in the study," Lynda said, "I'm interested in doing anything that might restore my sight. How do I sign up?"
"Ask the Medical Assistant at the front desk for the necessary forms," Dr. Ostrowski advised. "You will also need to get a DNA throat swab, a blood test, and copies of your medical records for the past five years. You can speedup the process by having your medical files sent to the Whyte Clinic by Overnight Express. Any more questions? If not, then we can end this appointment. Have the girl at the front desk schedule an appointment for you to see me in two weeks."
Lynda had no sooner stepped out into the hallway when a loudspeaker blared, "CODE BLUE, CODE BLUE, ROOM A22!" She heard a medical cart rattling at high speed down the hallway and froze in her tracks. The medical technician pushing the crash cart attempted to swerve but clipped Lynda as he hurried by, sending her sprawling.
As Nurse Nit was responding to the Code Blue alarm, she saw Lynda fall. Ms. Nit helped Lynda stand up, examined Lynda for injuries, then led her into an exam room where Nurse Nit dressed minor lacerations to Lynda's left elbow. Because Lynda seemed disoriented, Nurse Nit had a doctor confirm that Lynda had not suffered any head trauma.
* * *
As part of the study, Lynda received gene therapy capsules along with massive macular injections of stem cells penetrating deep into the cornea. The injections were given at regular intervals, alternating between the right and left eye. The goal was for the influx of stem cells to replace dead or damaged cornea cells. It wasn't pretty, nor was it entirely without pain, but Lynda persevered and was rewarded with improved vision. So much so that at her 24th birthday party Lynda was able to see 19 of the 24 candles on her raspberry chocolate cake. She no longer used a cane to walk within the gated apartment complex. Following a minor dispute with the resident manager, Lynda purchased the apartment complex from the absentee owner, thus becoming her own landlord (plus that of the other tenants as well).
Shortly after Lynda's 24th birthday, the ocular study which had done so much to improve her vision was completed. During her final treatment, Lynda thanked Dr. Ostrowski for all he had done for her while reminding him that despite the improvement she was still legally blind. "Is there anything more that can be done?," Lynda asked.
"We have pretty much reached the current limits of gene therapy technology in North America. However, I will keep you posted as to any new developments," Dr. Ostrowski promised.
"You said we've reached the limits in North America. Does that mean that there are other countries that are ahead of us in gene therapy technology?," inquired Lynda. "Red Chinese researchers are pushing the envelope, mainly because they do not have the restrictions on human experimentation that our government imposes." Dr. Ostrowski confided. "Nonetheless, I doubt if they are that far ahead. If there had been any major breakthroughs, I most likely would have read about them in one of the medical journals that specialize in gene therapy. I do my best to keep abreast of what is happening in my field."
"Is there a chance that I could further increase my vision if I went to a Chinese medical institution that is conducting a trial similar to the one we are completing?" Lynda innocently asked.
"Of course, there is an outside chance," the physician confirmed, "but it would be a marginal chance at best. What is more likely is that they wouldn't be able to do anything for you at all or, much worse, they might cause you to lose some of the sight you recently regained. It's a crap shoot at best, but it is your decision to make. However, before you make up your mind, I think you should hear a story about something that occurred before either of us were born. Back in the early 1970's, during the Cold War, a distinguished Russian opthamologist developed a procedure called radial keratotomy to cure nearsightedness (myopia). Since it wasn't available in the United States, thousands of well-to-do Americans flew to Moscow to have the procedure done. So many Westerners came that the one hospital in which it was done instituted a factory-style surgical line in which a number of skilled surgeons each performed a separate incision in the complex corneal operation. In this way 40 to 50 operations could be done in one day. However, in the ensuing years unforeseen problems developed such as scar tissue and halo vision. As a consequence, today, radial keratotomy has been discredited. My colleagues and I have spent countless hours correcting the damage to sight that was done to thousands of Americans in Russia fifty years ago by an untested procedure. It's a shame that these over eager patients didn't have the patience to wait 10 years for U.S. opthamologists to develop and test laser surgery. To me, searching for "miracle" cures in foreign lands is largely a waste of time and money."
"Patience is the forbear of procrastination. To hesitate is the way to miss opportunities. I was in elementary school when I began to lose my sight," confided Lynda. "For fifteen years I put up with the darkness. It got me nowhere. Then your study came along and I began to see the light. If I wait, that light might vanish. As long as I have the resources to do so, I intend to pursue my goal of being able to see as good as anybody else."
"Understandable," responded Dr. Ostrowski since you are bound and determined to go to China, I am going to give you the names of a few reliable Chinese researchers with whom I have had correspondence; that way you won't have to go in blind (please excuse the bad pun). At least you will have a starting point. Bon voyage."
As Lynda was exiting the exam room, Dr. Ostrowski handed her a handwritten index card:
Institute of Neuroscience
Institute of Vision Research
Seoul, South Korea
* * *
Traveling to China for the first time would be a daunting task for any novice traveler, let alone for a blind person. Lynda felt she needed help. Rather than hire a stranger, she preferred to have Uncle Jack accompany her. After all, he had said that he would always be there when she needed him. The problem was that she had no way of knowing how long she would be staying in China. Lynda also needed someone to manage her apartment complex and other business affairs while she was away.
Who could assist her better than her own flesh and blood? But it did not seem fair for her to be continually asking them for help without any reciprocation on her part. No doubt it was time for Lynda to share her good fortune with her family.
Lynda broke the news to her mother and Uncle Jack that she would be going to China for an indefinite period of time when they were eating dinner at an Italian restaurant. She would be giving each of them five million dollars. They objected and said she didn't need to give them part of her winnings until she explained to them that they would be earning the money. Uncle Jack would be her chaperone/bodyguard during her stay in China and her mother would manage her investments at home.
In order to enter mainland China, Lynda and her Uncle Jack would need U.S. passports, tourist visas, and roundtrip airline tickets. Being inexperienced travelers, it took them six weeks to get everything in order.
They would be flying from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG). Estimated non-stop flight flight time is 14 hours, 30 minutes.
Finally, the day of departure came. Lynda and her Uncle Jack left home two hours early to allow for possible delays at airport security. First rain, then hail began to fall. Being Southern Californians used to a relatively dry climate, neither Lynda nor Jack had thought to bring along a raincoat or an umbrella. No problem. The International terminal at Los Angeles Airport had more retail stores and kiosks than a shopping mall (and higher prices aimed at captive travelers). Jack had no trouble finding a shop that sold folding umbrellas. He bought two.
When Jack's luggage went through a metal detector, an alarm sounded. A Transportation Security Administration agent put the offending bag under a fluoroscope and all hell broke loose. Suddenly, Lynda and Jack were surrounded by TSA agents. A Los Angeles Airport policewoman pinned Jack to the ground while two TSA agents searched his pockets. They put handcuffs on Jack, then half-dragged, half-carried him to a small windowless room where they strip searched him, paying particular attention to his body cavities.
Meanwhile, Lynda was having difficulty finding someone who could tell her what was going on. She was panic stricken and started sobbing uncontrollably. A supervisor escorted Lynda to the room where Jack was being interrogated and explained that a fluoroscopy had revealed a nine millimeter Beretta in one of Jack's bags.
"Of course, he has a handgun. I hired him as my bodyguard. As you can see, I am blind. We are flying to China for ocular gene therapy that is unavailable in the United States. I don't know how long we will stay there," explained Lynda. "Frankly, I do not feel safe."
TSA agents fingerprinted Jack. They dumped the contents of Lynda's purse on a formica counter and confiscated her cellphone without giving her a reason. When a policewoman began to pat her down, Lynda said she would not cooperate further until she was allowed to speak to an attorney.
Forty minutes later two FBI agents, a man and a woman, arrived. After talking to the TSA people and reviewing the evidence they removed the handcuffs from Jack. No charges would be filed. Lynda and her Uncle Jack were free to board their flight to China. However, the handgun and a small bottle of cologne had been confiscated by the FBI agents. Lynda asked Jack why the agents objected to the cologne.
"Who knows? Who cares?", answered Uncle Jack. "We have five minutes to catch our flight. Let's go!"
Lynda and Jack were the last two people to board East China Airline's Flight 324 for Shanghai. Lynda's heart was pounding. She turned to Jack to make a comment, but Jack had fallen asleep after fastening his seatbelt. For Jack the gun incident had been nothing out of the ordinary. He lived on a gray edge between light and dark, good and bad. Such is the fate of the professional gambler. Little surprised him anymore. He took it all in stride. Uncle Jack wasn't completely jaded, but he was considerably more than halfway there.
Imagine spending fourteen and one-half hours on a non stop economy flight with no entertainment and cramped legroom. It's not the flight from hell, it's more like the flight from purgatory. One stewardess actually spoke passable English.
Pudong International Airport was not the inscrutable place that Lynda thought it would be. All signs were in both Mandarin and English. Also, there were money changing machines (dollar to yuan, etc.) in many areas of the International Terminal. However, Uncle Jack commented that they shouldn't be so fast to accept the exchange rate offered by the money changing machine. Jack had a hunch that the black market exchange rate would be more to their favor. Turns out, he was right. Soon after leaving the airport, they were approached by an English speaking Chinese gentleman in a business suit who offered to exchange their dollars for considerably more yuan than the money machine at the airport. It was a lesson in international finance that Lynda would put to good use in future travels.
Following a good night's sleep at a nearby hotel, Lynda and Jack took a taxi to the Institute of Neuroscience. Being home to more than 24 million people, Shanghai's streets were crowded. Traffic moved at a snail's pace. It seemed to take forever to get anywhere. What traffic lacked in speed, it made up with noise. Drivers shouting, horns honking, mixed with the sounds of new construction. And then there was Uncle Jack arguing with the taxicab driver over the fare. For Lynda, it was all too much. She shouted at Uncle Jack to pay the driver, she needed to get out. Her head was pounding from the sounds of the city. Surely, the esteemed Institute of Neuroscience could come up with two Tylenol tablets and a glass of water for a distressed damsel who had flown 6,500 miles to get there.
But it was not to be. In her miserable condition, she had difficulty making herself understood. Frustrated, Lynda left the Neuroscience Institute and lay down under a nearby tree. She sent Jack to buy a bottle of Tylenol. He returned an hour later to find Lynda sound asleep.
They spent the remainder of the day trying to find someone who was knowledgeable about the Neuroscience Institute's ongoing gene therapy research programs. Nobody seemed to know anything. Either that or the people they talked to were for an unknown reason being exceedingly tight-lipped. Jack thought it might be that since the Neuroscience Institute operated as a Chinese government facility, questions from information seeking foreigners were best left unanswered.
The man in a brown leather jacket with a bad haircut did not show up the second day. Jack doubted they would ever see him again. In the cloak and dagger world Lynda and Jack were small potatoes, hardly worth bothering with. When the initial surveillance proved fruitless, it probably was discontinued, Jack reasoned. The Chinese most likely had more important things to do than place a full-time tail on a couple of American tourists.
The Chinese economy was booming, posting double digit increases in most years. Each advance in technology brought with it a handful of new startups eager to exploit cutting edge research published by government funded institutions of higher learning. Most startups collapsed within two or three years, but the few who lasted generated immense profits for shareholders. Startups were constantly searching for "angel" investors who could overcome the initial financial inertia that new businesses inevitably encountered. However, Lynda was more interested in how a startup could improve her vision than she was with making money. She spent an entire day setting up appointments with gene therapy startups in Shanghai.
Lynda was surprised by what she found at the second startup she visited. The first startup had been exactly as she imagined - a small crowded office in a modern glass and steel high rise building headed by a Director who was more of a high pressure salesman than a businessman of substance and character. In her mind's picture of him there stood a sleazebag who would say or do anything to obtain one more cash fix. The second startup, Visual Sonar, Inc., located in a defunct cannery warehouse along the waterfront, smelled like a mixture of rotted fish and a dying diarrheic dragon's behind. However, what it lacked in style, it more than made up in substance. Its CEO pursued the novel idea of assisting sight with sound, much in the same way that a bat pinpoints the location of a mosquito on a moonless night. Visual Sonar was already manufacturing a wristband with embedded sensors that alerted the wearer how close the nearest obstruction was by how long it took for a high-pitched sound to bounce of it and return. In fact, Lynda was so impressed that, following a tour of their assembly line and a look at Visual Sonar's financial records, she invested three million dollars in the business.
"You give him three million dollars and in return he gives you a plastic wristband worth $15," complained Jack as they left the former cannery. "Keep going at this rate and you will be broke inside of a year."
"Ever hear of Fitbit?," countered Lynda. "What Fitbit did for fitness buffs, this device, once it is properly developed, will do for sightless people. Besides, math was never your best subject. Spending money at the rate I have been going, it would take me more than a lifetime to go broke."
Their short-stay tourist visas were about to expire. A two week extension was granted to them. But the official who approved the extension was adamant that there would be no more extensions. If they wanted to stay in China longer than two more weeks, they would have to apply for a resident visa.
Being on a tight schedule and having nearly exhausted their prospects for ocular gene therapy in Shanghai, Lynda and her Uncle Jack decided to take a bullet train to Hong Kong where the City University of Hong Kong was said to be making great advances in gene therapy.
Traveling by bullet train proved to be a memorable, relaxing experience. Unlike on the jetliner, there was plenty of legroom. Not only was the scenery spectacular, the workers in the fields paused at their labor to wave at the train. Slightly more than eight hours after leaving Shanghai they arrived at West Kowloon Terminal in Hong Kong feeling refreshed, having slept for much of their journey.
Although Hong Kong was officially a part of China, in many ways it was a world apart. For one thing the local currency was the Hong Kong dollar rather than the yuan. Also, the general atmosphere seemed more open than in Shanghai where people were close-lipped, almost as if the Communist Party was monitoring every spoken or written word. Here, in Hong Kong, the street vendors and cab drivers were talkative, even on sensitive subjects such as government and religion.
In many ways Hong Kong has become the hyper-capitalist engine of commerce between East and West. Travel restrictions are in place to keep low-paid mainland Chinese from moving to Hong Kong which enjoys a higher standard of living.
Hong Kong became a colony of the British Empire after China ceded Hong Kong Island at the end of the First Opium War in 1842. The colony expanded to the Kowloon Peninsula in 1860 after the Second Opium War, and was further extended when Britain obtained a 99-year lease of the New Territories in 1898. The territory was returned to China in 1997. By treaty, Hong Kong maintains separate governing and economic systems until 2047 from that of mainland China under the principle of "one country, two systems," but in reality that principle is gradually being eroded by the Chinese government. It is only with constant vigilance that the residents enjoy such rights as they have. While the people of Hong Kong remain defiant, its administrators have a history of kowtowing to Chinese officials on issues in which the people of Hong Kong differ from their Communist masters.
Not having knowledge of the available lodging in Hong Kong, Lynda asked a taxicab driver to drive them to the nearest reasonably priced hotel. He took them to the Kowloon Grand Hotel which by its architecture and location was obviously a Western style luxury hotel, although in truth its $78 (USD) a night rate was reasonable by American standards, albeit extremely pricey by local norms.
Lynda screamed when she opened the door to her room on the 6th floor. Uncle Jack ran inside the room, expecting to tackle an intruder, but no one was there. Lynda explained, "I saw an enormous rat dash across the room and disappear into the far wall. We need to change rooms, pronto." Trying hard not to laugh, Jack told her that what her impaired vision took to be a rat was most likely a roomba robotic vacuum cleaner. Still, to be on the safe side, he went back to the front desk and exchanged their rooms for two adjacent rooms on the 7th floor. The concierge took the incident seriously, knowing from experience that a rodent rumor could destroy business. He immediately apologized and arranged for an exterminator to check out the entire 6th floor for vermin.
The next morning, following a breakfast of rice sprinkled with grated dried mackerel and washed down with green tea, Lynda and her Uncle Jack went to Hong Kong City University. They did not have far to go as the university is located in the heart of Kowloon District.
The atmosphere at the university was completely different from that of academic institutions in Shanghai. Westerners comprised a significant part of the student body. Since most of the administrative staff spoke good English, Lynda had no trouble communicating to an administrative aide that she was seeking to become a subject in an ocular gene therapy research study. After consulting her computer for several minutes, the administrative aide replied, "Yes, Professor Tan is currently enrolling subjects for a two year research study on cornea restoration. To apply you will have to fill out an application and return it along with a $!5 filing fee before the end of enrollment."
Lynda went back to her hotel room and with her Uncle Jack's help filled out the eight page application. Now, she was in the unenviable position of not knowing whether she would be accepted for the research study or how much longer she would remain in China.
Jack thought he could help her get the answers to her dilemma. Unbeknown to Lynda, Jack had been going down into the hotel basement for the past two nights to do some late night gambling with a few of the Kowloon Grand Hotel's off-duty laundry workers. They played Mah-Jongg with a $15 (Hong Kong dollars, HKD) limit. From the way they spoke, he figured they had a good knowledge of how to influence Hong Kong's administrative infrastructure. To hear them talk, it was (and had always been) blatantly corrupt.
At 2AM, the laundry room in the basement of the Kowloon Grand Hotel was oppressively warm and muggy. The acrid smell of stale beer and tobacco smoke hung in the air. A row of jumbo tumbling, whirring clothes dryers made it almost impossible for the four gamblers seated around a clothes folding table playing mah-jongg to hear each other. However, it did not deter Jack from attempting to start a conversation with the toothless man seated across the table from Jack, a red paisley bandana covering his head, looking very much like a 17th century pirate.
"Can't we turn on an air conditioner in here?" shouted Jack, "it's stuffy in here!"
The wannabe pirate (or perhaps he was the real thing, Jack had no way of knowing) took a long drag off a stub of a cigar before responding, "No noisy air conditioner down here, and there is no need to yell, nobody here is hard of hearing."
"At least someone could open a window," Jack persisted.
"We are in the basement," the could-be, might-be pirate reminded Jack, "there are no windows. If you want to gamble in comfort, you can go across the bay to Macau, where you can pay big time for all the amenities your heart desires."
"You speak excellent English," stated Jack in an attempt to get on the man's good side.
"I was born in Hong Kong," explained the man Jack had mistook for a pirate, "although it may not be obvious at first glance, I am the product of an expensive English liberal arts education provided by our former colonial masters. Prior to independence, I was the head of the dockworker's union. My friends refer to me as 'Laoban'. The two other gentleman at our table are Jiang Zemin, former vice-president of the dockworker's union and Hu Jintao, former secretary of the dockworker's union." Jack nodded towards each man in turn as they were introduced to him. "As you can see, our political fortunes have severely declined since the departure of the British. Nevertheless, the current clamor for independence may place us back in power. Shangdi tigong."
"Shut up and throw the dice," exclaimed Hu Jintao.
Jack had no idea what the Chinese characters on the front of the tiles meant. Laoban said that "it does not matter because even an illiterate peasant can match the characters to win the game." Considering his losses at their last two sessions, Jack suspected otherwise.
Sure enough, Jack lost the game to Laoban. He had seen it before at a poker table in Gardena, California. Three friends schemed together to cheat a newcomer at cards. All three of the conspirators were from the same background.
Because he was a foreigner, this time Jack was the outsider. Being a professional gambler and having been fooled by conspirators before, Jack could kick himself for not seeing it coming. That time in Gardena, he and two friends had hid behind some dumpsters in the alley behind the poker casino waiting for the three cheaters to make their getaway. Jack did not have to wait for long. As the card sharks were piling into a car parked in the alley, Jack and his friends came out from behind the dumpsters and proceeded to smash the vehicle to smithereens with aluminum baseball bats.
That was 15 years ago. Jack had been younger and a whole lot meaner then. Also, there was three times as much money involved. Besides, Jack's primary purpose for being here was to gain information on how to influence Hong Kong's administrative decisions.
Putting aside the fact that he had been fleeced by amateurs, Jack decided to describe Lynda's dilemma straight up and seek Laoban's help with the matter while, having just won, Laoban was in a good mood.
"Contrary to what most foreigners believe, despite being nominally ruled by the Communist Party, Hong Kong is obsessed with materialism. Bribery is most effective when it is disguised as a donation," Laoban offered. "Money not only talks, it lubricates administrative decisions. American Vice-President Spiro Agnew was dismissed for having accepted $5,000 from a construction contractor for approving a multi-million dollar highway project. If the same thing had occurred in Hong Kong, Agnew-san would have lost face for being influenced by such a paltry amount."
* * *
"You need two things, a residency permit and inclusion in the cornea restoration research study headed by Dr. Tan, and you need to get both of them fast," Jack told his niece. "That means you need to expedite matters by bribing the officials in charge. Only you can't call it a bribe. Refer to it as a gratuity or a donation, whatever seems appropriate, as long as there is no connotation of corruption."
Lynda and her Uncle Jack were the first two people through the brass and glass double doors when the Hang Seng Bank opened at 10 AM. An older English speaking female bank teller performed a wire transfer from one of Lynda's banks in California, charging a 1.5 percent fee plus, as Jack suspected, converting U.S. dollars to Hong Kong dollars at the ridiculously low official exchange rate decreed by the mainland Chinese government. Lynda could have gotten a far better exchange rate on the Kowloon black market but she did not have time to shop around. Lynda stuffed $18,000 in hundred dollar bills into her purse and they left the bank, the entire transaction having been completed in less than 45 minutes.
Lynda’s hailed a taxi and instructed the driver to take her to the Hong Kong Public Security Bureau (PSB) Exit and Entry Administration office where she paid $140 to apply for a 10 year resident visa. While being interviewed by an official who would determine whether she qualified for a resident visa, she mentioned that she needed the new visa prior to becoming a subject in Dr. Tan’s research study and was willing to pay extra for express service.
"Of course, we can process your application in a week for $500," the smiling official offered. "Should you be in a hurry, I can have your resident visa ready within an hour. To drop what we are doing, make the proper background checks, and have my boss sign off on it would cost $5,000."
Forcing a smile, Lynda removed five $1,000 banded bundles from her purse and placed them on the desk in front of the official. The balding administrator scooped up the money, asked to be excused, and left the room, closing the door behind him. In less than an hour, he returned, two resident visas in hand, one for Lynda and the other for her Uncle Jack. "A pleasure doing business with you," remarked the smiling official as he vigorously shook Lynda's hand. "If there are ever any complications, do not hesitate to contact me."
Street food sold by pushcart vendors in China's large cities is for the most part delicious plus it is inexpensive and convenient. For these reasons the Alvarez's ate most meals out, avoiding the excessive paperwork and expense of room service. However, Jack had purchased an electric combination vegetable steamer and rice cooker at Kowloon's marketplace; tonight would be one of the few occasions when they chose to "eat in." During dinner, Lynda remarked on how helpful the government official had been in expediting their resident visas.
"Money talks," ventured Jack. "My acquaintances tell me everybody and everything has it price in Hong Kong. It's capitalism on steroids in an authoritarian society."
The only exceptions are handgun registrations and carry permits. Nobody other than the People's Liberation Army and the police are allowed to have weapons. I get the impression that the government doesn't trust its citizens with firearms, which is ironic considering that China invented gunpowder in the 10th century. Personally, I do not feel fully dressed without a handgun. No wonder the Chinese are so good at martial arts. A man needs to feel like he can protect his family should the situation warrant it."
Lynda awoke the next day to the sound of loud noises coming from the street below. Gazing out the window, Lynda saw colorful fireworks bursting in the air and what appeared to be a 30 foot dragon twisting from curb to curb as it sashayed its way through Kowloon accompanied by crowds of costumed revelers.When she opened the door between their adjoining rooms for Jack, the first thing Lynda said was "What is going on out there?"
"Today is January 25, 2020, the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year," explained Jack. "It's the year of the rat."
"Why would the Chinese celebrate twelve months rife with rodents?" Lynda wanted to know. "There is nothing funny about bubonic plague. We had to evacuate the 6th floor due to rats. I suppose now they are going to take over the entire hotel. Where is vector control when you need it? Quick, notify the World Health Organization."
"This is a cute stylized rat, the Chinese equivalent of Mickey Mouse," reasoned Jack.
"The rat I saw on the 6th floor looked mean," asserted Lynda. "Filthy, probably diseased, definitely not anything Walt Disney would try to market."
"You could not tell a rat from a robot vacuum," stated Jack, "much less whether he looked cute or mean."
"Since we are going to be staying in Hong Kong for two years, we need to lease a house. Hotels are expensive. They cater to tourists, businessmen, and diplomats," concluded Lynda, "people on the move. Not for us. We need to blend in with the locals. Tomorrow, when I go to register at the university, I would like for you to see whatever passes for a real estate agency in this country. Rent a condominium or a house here in Kowloon. I want hot running water and a serviceable kitchen. A small garden would be nice."
* * *
Uncle Jack was right about how to get things done in Hong Kong. Facilitated by a $7,500 donation to the university's building fund, obtaining approval to take part in Dr. Tan's research study was fast and easy. Lynda was so impressed by the campus and the friendliness of the student body that she decided to enroll as a freshman.
When Lynda returned to the hotel, she found Uncle Jack in a foul mood. What did it to him were the ridiculously high rents in Kowloon.
"A two bedroom apartment rents for $2,500 a month, not including utilities and incidental fees," Jack wailed, "and that is with having to share a bathroom with the apartment next door. These real estate agents are pirates. I was lucky to escape the real estate agency with the gold fillings in my teeth intact."
"Don't fret," remarked Lynda, "I am pretty sure I have found a way around the housing problem that will also solve most of the other issues we are facing. If we enrolled as students, we could both live on campus for less than $600 a month, utilities included.
"Me a student?," Jack exclaimed. "I barely made it through high school. It's too late for me to get an education. Most likely I would embarrass you by flunking out. You go ahead. I can work as a stevedore on the docks while you are attending classes."
"You doing coolie labor? No way." Lynda reached out and latched onto her uncle's right hand. "Soft hands with no calluses. Physical labor is not your forte. I can hire you a tutor. What's the matter? It scares you, doesn't it?," guessed Lynda. "Look on the bright side, you will be surrounded by naive, gorgeous, young single females, some of whom will no doubt fall for your insipid, 'Hi, My name is Jack. I am an Aquarius, what's your sign?' pickup line. This is your time to shine."
"I'm phoning Mom and asking her to send us our high school transcripts," Lynda stated as she took her cellphone out of her pocket. "You did graduate, didn't you?"
"Of course I did," Jack replied, "East Los Angeles High, Class of '88. They taught me English and Spanish. The only thing I can say in Chinese is 'chop suey.'"
"Chop suey is as American as apple pie," corrected Lynda. "It was created in San Francisco by Chinese immigrants. I am not positive, but from what little I have heard most of the classes are taught in English. Besides, we could both benefit from learning to speak Chinese."
"Living on campus might have drawbacks," Jack speculated. "What if the bed is too hard? At home I have an orthopedic pillow top mattress."
"No, I won't spoil it for you," conceded Jack. "But I doubt if our class schedules will be identical, so how about if I get you a seeing eye dog to assist you when I am not around."
"I have been thinking about getting a service dog for quite some time," stated Lynda. "Let's look into it."
What Lynda and Jack found was that visually impaired people were using seeing eye dogs in China as early as the 13th century, long before the western world. However, it was not until 2012 that the Chinese government passed a law prohibiting public places from banning seeing eye dogs. Although the law has not been rigidly enforced, fewer public places are turning away service dogs.
Two days later, Lynda visited Hong Kong Seeing Eye Dog Services where she made a generous donation and started the process of obtaining a nine month old female black Labrador seeing eye dog named Lady Dei.
There were advantages to acquiring a service dog in China rather than in the United States. Service dogs are not required to be neutered in China and the cost of the dog and its training is most often less.
However, there would be a delay before Lay Dei could go home with Lynda. Lady Dei had two more months of seeing eye dog basic training to complete. Then there would be from one to two weeks of advanced training in which Lynda would participate as the two of them teamed up to confront the challenges which the visually impaired face on a daily basis.
Similar to the previous research study in which Lynda was a subject, Dr. Tan required her to have an injection in her cornea bi-weekly plus take several pills orally on a daily basis. The injections alternated between her left and right eyes.
Classes started three week after Dr. Tan's ocular research study began. Both Lynda and Jack were listed as undeclared majors. Lynda took two classes in higher mathematics, a course in marketing, and a class in Basic Chinese. Jack took the same Basic Chinese class as Lynda. He also took a course in game theory and two classes in geology. Jack thought he was the oldest undergraduate student at the university. He wasn't. He simply had yet to encounter any students older than himself.
Learning what to do and what not to do to get along with the Chinese did not come easy. Jack liked to use his chopsticks as if they were drumsticks. He would tap out a rhythm on a tabletop, sometimes becoming totally involved. Chinese culture considered such behavior extremely rude. Also, he spit fishbones out into his rice bowl, a definite no-no. Whereas Lynda made friends easily, many students regarded Jack as a barbarian. Unlike Lynda, however, he kept his own company, seemingly unconcerned about what other people thought of him.
Bringing Lady Dei into the residence hall for the first time was a mixed experience. At first the residence hall's mother objected to having a dog inside the building, as did a few of the students. One made an official complaint. However, Hong Kong university's administrator for student housing ruled that assistance dogs were permitted by both university policy and Chinese law. An anonymous person slipped a note under Lynda's door at night which demanded that "the notorious flea and disease ridden beast" be evicted from the residence hall posthaste along with its "foreign devil" mistress. When Lynda opened her hallway door the next morning she almost stepped in a pile of animal manure which someone had placed in front of the door.
That night Lynda showed Jack the "foreign devil" note and told him about the excrement in the hallway. Uncle Jack said the writer probably only sought to intimidate Lynda, but the phrase "foreign devil" led him to suspect there might be more to it. Later, when Jack went downstairs to gamble at Mah-Jongg, he related the earlier incident to the other three players. Laobahn took the matter seriously, commenting, "Your niece is in need of protection. Targeted people disappear. One day they are here, the next day they vanish, never to be heard from again."
Laobahn took out something wrapped in rags from an inner coat pocket and held it out towards Jack. When Jack went to take it with his right hand, Laobahn jerked it back, commenting that "Chinese etiquette demands that a person use both hands when accepting a gift."
Having been admonished, Jack used both hands to take the gift saying, "Whatever it is, it's certainly heavy."
"It's an 8 mm Nambu, together with a handful of bullets. There aren't many of them left," explained Laobahn when he saw the bewildered look on Jack's face. "The serial numbers have been filed off. Possessing an unauthorized firearm in China is a serious offense, even worse for a 'foreign devil.'"
Jack hefted the pistol in his right hand. "Please, allow me to pay you for it," Jack pleaded.
"You already have with your losses at Mah-Jongg," reasoned Leobahn. "Be careful. Government bugs and hidden cameras are everywhere in Hong Kong."
Now that Jack was packing a pistol, he felt he could better protect his niece from the Chinese hothead (Jack was relatively sure it was a Chinese student who had threatened Lynda, because seeing eye dogs were commonplace in most industrialized countries). However, he needed to fire the pistol to make sure it was in working order. On a day when there were no classes, he took the handgun along with two pillows to an unlocked shed and fired one shot into the ground, using the pillows to muffle the sound. Much to his surprise, the gun worked.
At the first reporting period, Lynda aced all of her classes. Unfortunately, Jack did nowhere near as well. Nevertheless, Lynda refused to give up on him. She hired a graduate student tutor to assist her uncle and insisted on weekly reports on Jack's progress. Following two weeks of tutoring, the tutor stated that "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." Evidently, Jack wasn't motivated to learn and claimed to have an aversion to books.
Less than ten months into Dr. Tan's research study, something happened in another part of China which would have a profound effect on Lynda and her Uncle Jack. Biophysicist HE Jiankui announced that he and three colleagues had used CRISPR technology to modify human embryos and make them resistant to HIV, which led to the birth of twin girls, Lulu and Nana. The news immediately triggered worldwide criticism, denouncement, and debate over the scientific and ethical legitimacy of HE's genetic experiments. China's guidelines and regulations banned genome editing on human embryos for clinical use because of scientific and ethical concerns, in accordance with the international consensus. HE's human experimentation not only violated these Chinese regulations, but also breached other ethical and regulatory norms. These included questionable scientific value, unreasonable risk-benefit ratio, illegitimate ethics review, invalid informed consent, and regulatory misconduct. Intense international criticism led to HE being tried and convicted for practicing medicine without a license. The court sentenced HE to three years in prison and returned lesser sentences for his colleagues. Anxious to show its concern for moral and ethical issues, China's government chimed in by instituting a ban on all human gene editing experimental research.
Dr. Tan, his research team, and Hong Kong University were devastated. Lynda, whose sight was beginning to benefit from the biweekly treatments was heartbroken.
What to do? Dr. Tan's research study and all other Chinese CRISPR research studies involving human experimentation were suspended until further notice. It was clear to Lynda that China would no longer be on the cutting edge of treatment for Leber's congenital amaurosis. She was tempted to give up, pack her bags, and return to California. However, Jack and Lynda were enrolled in degree programs at Hong Kong City University. It would not make sense to simply pull up stakes and leave.
Later that night, Lynda told Jack about how the Chinese government had brought her ocular treatments to an abrupt halt. Jack's reaction was to suggest that they pack their bags and return to California as soon as possible. Lynda was against such precipitous behavior, but the only way she could get Jack to agree to stay until the end of the semester was to promise him an excursion to Macau, the former Portuguese colony that was rumored to have bigger and better casinos than Las Vegas.
In some ways student culture at Hong Kong City University resembled that of their counterparts in the western world. One way in which it did not, was in the Hong Kong City University students' taste in foods. French fries, steaks, and hot dogs were rarely, if ever, part of their diet. One way in which it did was in western clothes (T-shirts, bluejeans, and tennis shoes). Jack had four yellow T-shirts silkscreened with the phrase "foreign devil" in red, bold block letters on the front of the T-shirt on the chance that it might provoke the person who had slipped the offensive note under Lynda's door to reveal himself. It didn't work. What did happen was that a number of students (several of whom were Chinese) began wearing "foreign devil" T-shirts. So much for Jack's investigative skills.
* * *
On their next two days without classes, Lynda and her Uncle Jack took a ferry from Hong Kong to Macau, a distance of about 41 miles. Everything they had heard about Macau turned out to be true. Macau has 38 casinos and it takes in more revenue from gambling than Las Vegas. Jack stood in awe of its glitz and glamor, but was disappointed when he discovered that the free drinks being passed out by lovely hostesses consisted of various varieties of tea. Unlike Reno and Las Vegas, alcoholic drinks did not flow freely.
They took two adjoining rooms at the Grand Lisboa Palace for one night at a cost of less than $200. The word 'palace' was not a misnomer. It was truly palatial with gold bathroom fixtures and canopy beds. Nor did the management attempt to prohibit Lady Dei from staying in Lynda's room.
Lynda took advantage of the hotel's indoor spa while Jack went down to the casino to gamble. The majority of the games were of western origin. There was only one that Jack did not readily recognize. At 3 AM Lynda heard Jack enter his room. From the racket emanating from his room, he had more to drink than the free tea. Lynda rolled over and went back to sleep.
Despite Lynda's efforts to wake up Jack, he did not get up the next day until almost noon. Even then, he looked like shit, but Lynda avoided commenting on it.
That night, they took the ferry back to Hong Kong. Since the bay was choppy and Jack had yet to recover from the previous night's revelry, he spent a lot of time leaning over the railing. Lynda left him alone so as not to embarrass him.
Student life had paled for Lynda with the abrupt end of Dr. Tan's research study. Her hopes had gone sky high only to be dashed against the immovable rock that was the omnipresent, authoritarian Chinese government. Lady Dei was the bright spot in Lynda's life. Hugging Lady Dei helped Lynda deal with depression.
Jack struggled to do better in his classes. His problem was that his heart was not into studying. He seized upon the slightest distraction as an excuse to set aside his books. It bothered him that his niece put such a heavy emphasis on his education. After all, he was nearing middle age and was set in his ways.
Lynda heard from a teaching assistant that Dr. Tan had gone to South Korea where he was able to restart his research study. She was tempted to follow, but thought better of it. She had gained little of the visual improvement she had hoped to get by traveling to China and there was no reason to believe that traveling to South Korea would turn out any better. In fact, she regretted having gone abroad to seek treatment. Dr. Ostrowski had warned her of the dangers of traveling abroad for treatment, but Lynda had rejected his advice.
Lynda and her Uncle Jack started making plans for going back to the United States. There would not be much to pack. Much of their non-essential items had already been sent to Lynda's mother for safekeeping.
It was not as if traveling to China had been a complete waste. Lynda now owned a near majority of shares in a startup which manufactured sonar wristband distance finders for visually challenged individuals such as herself. Administrative officials assured Lynda that all class credits for her freshman year at Hong Kong City University would be accepted by the University of California, Irvine, towards earning a degree. And, best of all, Lady Dei and Lynda had become inseparable, each dependent on the other. Her Introductory Biology professor referred to the relationship between Lynda and Lady Dei as a perfect example of "symbiosis." Nor was a service dog acquired in China required to be spayed as they were in the United States, often leading to listlessness, obesity, and a significantly shortened lifespan.
The semester was drawing to an end. High time to pay attention to the details of Lynda and Jack's return to California.
Hampering their progress, was the Chinese government's knee jerk response to an attempted hijacking of a jetliner a week earlier. Although nobody was injured or killed and the bad guys with the fake bomb were all Chinese dissidents, security was immediately tightened and foreigners were rounded up and interrogated in an attempt to expose it as a CIA plot.
Two plain clothes detectives who spoke perfect English had approached Jack as he was headed off campus and herded him into the backseat of a late model sedan driven by a Hong Kong police officer who drove them to a nearby police station. Jack was frisked, but the detectives did not place him in handcuffs. After an hour of interrogating Jack in a windowless concrete block room that stunk of sweat and stale tobacco smoke, a uniformed Hong Kong police officer drove him around in what seemed to be steadily increasing ellipse before dropping Jack off on a wide sidewalk facing the campus. No charges were brought against him.
This was not the first time Jack had been interrogated. Anytime anything goes wrong in China, the national impulse is to find a foreigner to blame it on. Taken as a whole, Chinese culture is xenophobic. However, Jack found it understandably so. In the 19th century, European powers tried to carve up China, worse yet, they largely succeeded. What followed was the First and Second Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, and the siege of Manchuria; all of which China (then known as the Celestial Kingdom) lost.
Jack had discovered first hand through his relations with former Hong Kong dockworkers that it was not enough to be Chinese or of Chinese heritage. To be fully accepted, one had to be Han Chinese. Uighurs and other ethnic groupings are largely excluded. Jack had no trouble understanding this, either, because the United States had recently undergone a long period of Isolationism and still struggled with racial issues. Understanding a problem is one thing, going along with it is quite another. As Jack had been telling Lynda for months, "the sooner we leave China, the better."
* * *
Finally, the day (or to be proper, night) of departure arrived. The semester was over, grades had been posted, and Jack had actually earned an "A" in Biology. Lynda and her Uncle Jack would be departing Hong Kong on a non-stop redeye Air China flight to Los Angeles. This time they knew to bring plenty of reading material and several hand held video games with them. Surprise of surprises! Lady Dei was allowed to accompany Lynda in the cabin at no extra cost, with the provision that she wore a muzzle and remained on a leash at all times.
There had been good moments during their extended stay in China, and Lynda and Jack had both gained knowledge at the City of Hong Kong university. Overall, their trip had been a rewarding experience (despite the fact that Jack would have felt much more comfortable if he had stayed home in California). Jack's 8 millimeter pistol remained behind, buried beneath the floor of a seldom used shed on the outskirts of the City of Hong Kong university. In Jack's mind, it was his gift to some future human-rights-and-freedom-loving generation of Chinese. May it soon come to pass.
The Selkirk family had been farming in rural Ontario, Canada, for more than 150 years. The current patriarch, Big John Selkirk, 6 foot 3 inches and 200 pounds of solid muscle, took pleasure in emphasizing how unforeseen circumstances and the vagaries of a short growing season had made the Selkirks tough and self-reliant. Two or three good years were often followed by a string of lean years. Family farming was a hard way to make a living. Workdays started at sunup and rarely ended before sundown.
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