Shopping brings UNMC, Tongji University together

Last October, I was in Xi’an, China with campus leaders to report on UNMC’s activity in the world’s largest nation. It was our last dinner at the invitation of our Chinese hosts. The very large round table we sat at overflowed with tasty dishes. After dinner our hosts made toasts and we reciprocated. I mustered all my public-speaking courage (I’m a writer, not a public speaker), stood up, raised my glass and thanked our hosts for the incredible hospitality during our stay. I said if any of our hosts ever came to Nebraska, that I would like to host them for dinner at my house.

I made good on that promise about a month ago. During the opening ceremony for the UNMC-hosted International Student Research Forum and Joint Research Symposium, I was surprised to see Li Zheng and Hang Su. I had met the Tongji University students during our visit in Shanghai. They were volunteers who helped make our visit go smoothly. Now they were here for two months to do research in the Durham Research Center. I made a beeline to reintroduce myself and hoped they would remember me and be interested in being my guests for dinner.

A couple of weeks later I hosted my first Chinese guests.

Li and Hang brought me gifts when they arrived at my house for dinner. I’m wearing the necklace and holding the Chinese hand-cut paper art.

Over dinner I got to know these two fun, curious and energetic students. We asked each other questions, laughed and talked about some of the first impressions many visitors from big Chinese cities have of Omaha – it’s much quieter here and no one walks down the streets (they drive instead). They were impressed that I had a backyard, something rare in China’s large cities.

Li Zheng and Hang Su give the thumbs up to Nebraska New York Strips.

After dinner I asked them what they would like to do in Omaha. I’ve been a visitor in foreign countries and it’s always great when locals take you under their wings. Without hesitation, Li said, ‘shopping.’ Shopping is a universal activity for women. I could relate. It’s one of my favorite things to do in a foreign country. Shop early and often is my motto. There we were at 8 o’clock at night heading to Village Pointe.

That started a two-week shopping marathon. Li needed to find her sister, friends and professors just the right gifts. And, a $100 Coach purse for her mother. I suspected this would be an impossible feat. Li told me designer items in the U.S. are much cheaper than in China (though most are made in China).

But $100 didn’t go far in the Coach store. We’d need a backup plan. Next week we’d start fresh. In the meantime the three of us rode a ferris wheel (though I’m afraid of heights) in a sporting goods shop.

Hang Su, me, and Li Zheng defying gravity on a Ferris wheel in Village Point.

I showed Li landmarks in Omaha (including Warren Buffett’s house). I took her out for Greek food for the first time in her life. We visited Oak View Mall. There were a lot of things there – just not the right thing.

Li was curious about how Americans spend weekends, so I took her to South Omaha to experience a little bit of Mexican culture and then to the Old Market for more “shopping culture.” (Taking her to my house to watch me clean then shop for groceries would have been boring.)

What are the chances it would rain that day for the first time in months? We tried to stay dry as we bounced in and out of several shops on 24th Street. We found lots of things that weren’t made in China, including some colorful handmade glass candle holders Li bought for her friends. Score!

In the Old Market, Li ate Mexican food for the first time – enchiladas, tacos, fried beans. She liked it. Later, she was excited to find a planner with wildlife photos for her sister who loves animals. She also bought a Native American dreamcatcher. We went to a few art galleries then to the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge for a photo of the skyline. We put one foot on each side of the line in the cement that designates the Nebraska and Iowa state lines (sounds dorky but it’s fun).

I came to realize that Li was a bargain shopper. Somewhere she had got a tip that discounted Coach purses were on sale at Von Maur. I was skeptical, but bargain hunting – I’d forgotten – is a sport in China. We hopped into my car and headed to Westroads. After just five minutes in the Coach section, there dangling on Li’s arm was with a clearance-priced, regular-sized Coach purse for a little more than $100. Unbelievable! Her trip to Omaha was complete!

Li making the “C” for Coach at the Coach counter.

During the last week of Li and her colleagues’ Omaha visit, they invited me to dinner at the UNMC International House. That night, the students assembled an array of 18 different meat and vegetable dishes that filled two large tables. It was a feast for the eyes and taste buds that rivaled the great food we had in China. I asked lead student and chef, Xiangyi Wen, M.D., “Victor” when he would open a restaurant in Omaha.

Chef — Xiangyi Wen, M.D., “Victor” in the UNMC International House, definitely knew his way around the kitchen.

My experience with Li and her colleagues was much more than shopping. We became friends. We learned how much we have in common. I learned about Li’s life in Shanghai and her family. She told me her grandfather had died recently and that she was still very sad about it.

Our travels took us to places in Omaha I’d never been before, including to Pioneer Courage Park Monument – an impressive bronze sculpture that depicts four pioneer families and their covered wagons headed westward from Omaha.

I could draw a parallel to Li and her colleagues, who headed west back to China a couple of weeks ago. They have forged new territory as part of UNMC’s partnerships in China and I am happy to have been a part of their Omaha experience. It left me with unforgettable memories.

Imagine my surprise when I found out fortune cookies are not a Chinese invention (though they are served in Chinese-American restaurants). Our Chinese guests had never seen the things. I’m sure they were amused!

A museum with a bite

My son has told me that the tooth fairy turns teeth into money. Maybe. Or maybe, many of them ended up here, at the UNMC College of Dentistry’s Dental Museum.

Teeth. Everywhere, teeth.

And fillings, and molds, and drills, and tools and dentists’ chairs that go back to the 1800s.

(“Did you sit in the chairs?!” asked UNMC Today editor Chuck Brown, a little too excitedly. No. They all had signs that said, “Please do not sit in chairs.” And also, what if I’d been suddenly descended upon by a swarm of dental students?)

Dr. Harn is very proud of the numerous beautiful and historic dentists’ cabinets housed at the Dental Museum.

I ask Stanton Harn, Ph.D., professor of oral biology in the College of Dentistry, when we humans first decided we needed dentistry, as a profession. Dentistry comes from medicine, he said. The first dentist, he said, was an Egyptian physician in 3,000 B.C.

I don’t know if any of that guy’s stuff is here. But Dr. Harn does have a few tools from Pompeii.

The stuff is everywhere, up and down hallways, filling a whole room. Historic drills! Historic metal hooks (which look pretty much the same they do today)! Pepsodent endorsed by Bob Hope!

The collecting started in the late ’70s. “It’s been 35 years or so of finding it when we find it,” Dr. Harn said. He’s been the museum’s curator and its driving force.

Look at this, he is saying. Beautiful cabinets with intricate fold-out drawers. Whole offices, re-created by period (1870s-1880s, etc.).

Dr. Harn got his first few items when he found out they were trying to make room for more displays in “Elephant Hall.” He went through the basement and came up with a few things. Cool things.

Then he sat down and wrote letters to every alum (actual letters; this was the ’70s) from the College of Dentistry who had graduated before 1950.

“I got three responses,” he said.

But it paid off when he displayed what he had at homecoming, that year, and heard, “Oh! I’ve got some of that!” And heard it again at the next homecoming. And the next.

Now, he said, he has between 200 and 300 alums who annually give money dedicated to making the collection grow.

When Doc Holliday says “brush,” you brush.

He looks everywhere for items. They could have gotten Doc Holliday’s chair (yes, that’s where he got the name; Doc was the rootinest, shootinest dentist in the West). But it just cost too darn much.

But he has no permanent space. This room? “This is the anatomy lab,” he said. That’s why the Dental Museum is open just one week a year (for UNL homecoming; you already missed it). The rest of the time most of this stuff is in storage. “It’s taken me a week to put it up!” Dr. Harn said.

He wanted me to try the foot-pedal drill. It’s like one of those old sewing machines, and yes, it does work. Maybe 700 rpms, Dr. Harn said (Wikipedia says modern dental drills can do about 400,000).

Still, that’s better than what they had before: twirling the drill by hand, with your fingers. Imagine how slow that would go? You don’t have to. Dr. Harn shows me – oh, yeah, you’d better believe he has one of those, too.

Dr. Haorah goes to school

When James Haorah was 11 years and 5 months old, a Catholic priest walked for seven miles to get to the village in remote northeast India where young James lived. It was a momentous day, and the priest was feted with great fanfare. This was partly a sign of deep respect, for a visiting dignitary, and partly because something this exciting didn’t happen every day.

What did happen every day was that people worked. All day, growing rice, vegetables, livestock. They gathered water, and firewood, maintaining a daily existence. No running water, no electricity.

There was no child care; there was no staying home with the kids. Bigger little kids watched younger siblings as mothers and fathers worked in the fields.

James Haorah would describe it, some 40 years later, “Like the 1800s here in the United States.”

Dr. Haorah’s home village in the remote northeast part of India doesn’t even show up on Google maps, but it is close to the district capital, Ukhrul.

That day, the visiting priest asked the gathered kids what they wanted to do in life. Young James was 11 years and 5 months old – looking back, he remembers it almost to the day. “I was a bit outspoken,” he said. He stood up boldly. He would be a doctor, he said.

And they laughed. All the kids laughed. Even the village elders laughed. “They had a very good reason,” James said. At 11 years and 5 months, James had never been to school.

How could he? He had responsibilities. He watched baby siblings. He already had a job. He was a buffalo herder.

But that day, amid the laughter, he made a decision.

When school started, he showed up. He went to nursery school, among the 3-year-olds, and sat down. He was 11 years and 7 months. He remembers it almost to the day.

The teachers were flustered: You can’t bring a baby in here! But James did, still caring for his younger siblings (that was the deal). And each time the teacher tried to kick him out, he said the same thing: “I am sitting here.”

Dr. Haorah didn’t attend school until age 11, but since then his determination has made him a lauded investigator at UNMC.

In 2004, when he returned to the little village near the Myanmar border on the other side of Bangladesh, the teachers remembered him. “Now, for them it is a story,” he said. It’s one they tell all of the kids.

If you work with James Haorah, maybe you have seen this determination, in him. Today he is James Haorah, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of pharmacology and experimental neuroscience at UNMC.