Originally Aired: February 14, 2017
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Katherine Puckett: If you really let it rip, “Hee hee hee hee!” [Laugh]. I hope it does not blast in your ear out [Laughter].
Xia: Gosh, September twenty-third. I hate that day.
Kai: I know, and you remember the details much better than I do. It’s amazing to me.
Xia: Well, that day, it just, it changed our lives.
Kai: It did, absolutely it did.
Host: MY NAME IS ANDY HORNING, AND THIS IS ELEPHANT TALK. IT’S A SHOW ABOUT ALL THINGS RELATIONSHIP – THE SOULFUL, THE SILLY, AND THE SEXY.
IN THIS EPISODE WE HEAR FROM KAI AND XIA. THEIR MARRIAGE IS ONE OF LEARNING HOW RELATIONSHIP IS DONE ACROSS DIFFERENT CULTURES, ESPECIALLY REGARDING THE CHINESE BELIEF IN LUCK.
ALSO IN TODAY’S EPISODE, I’LL BE TALKING WITH MIND-BODY THERAPIST DOCTOR KATHERINE PUCKETT DISCUSSING THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING REAL, RATHER THAN OPTIMISTIC, WHEN MANAGING ILLNESS WITH A PARTNER.
IN THE FALL OF 1999, KAI MOVED TO CHINA. HE WAS TEACHING RALPH ELLISON’S BOOK “THE INVISIBLE MAN” IN A UNIVERSITY LITERATURE CLASS. AND AT ONE POINT HE ASKED THE STUDENTS, “WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU WERE INVISIBLE? WHAT WOULD YOU WANT IF YOU WERE INVISIBLE?” ONE WOMAN’S ANSWER CAUGHT HIS ATTENTION. SHE SAID, “IF I WERE INVISIBLE, I’D WANT TO BE VISIBLE.” A LONG AND COMPLEX COURTSHIP FOLLOWED.
Xia: I think when it comes to the relationship between husband and wife, my expectation is that the husband- when the wife is upset, the husband should just say anything to make the wife happy.
Kai: To make it better, yeah.
Xia: Instead of- whereas your way is to talk it through.
Xia: Look at what happened, what we should do, what we shouldn’t do. I was so annoyed by that.
Kai: Oh! I remember.
Kai: We had some awful fights.
Kai: But I know those same feelings that you’re describing are still there for me, you know when we fight, there are times- there are still times, recently where I want to punch a wall- not you! Never you! But I want to, get out my frustration with the situation.
Xia: Well… I would say I take that responsibility, I have never been a good communicator and also is very different from, again, from how Chinese husbands and wives communicate.
Xia: Yeah, when there are fights, the wives just sticks by the husbands to say yeah or everything [Laughter] to say sorry, agree to it. And there isn’t that communication of… seeing what went wrong and what could be better.
Xia: Yeah, and… yeah, no, after… I mean, we- at that point our relationship was pretty bad, wasn’t it?
Kai: Oh, yeah!
Xia: I learned how to apologize, I think.
Kai: That was a big one, for sure.
Xia: Really big, I just never would have apologized to my husband! Or, again, I think it’s sort of a cultural difference, same as when you say thank you to my cooking, I still find it weird that, we’re a family, why do you need to say thank you to me because I cook for you?
Kai: I really just don’t think about it, if you do something nice for me I’ll say thank you, you know and I know- but I am still mindful of that and like- I remember, I think we had a fights about that stupid stuff, you know?
Xia: Yeah! Yeah.
Kai: Is like ‘I’m just doing what I normally- it’s like breathing for me!’ how can I mean offense by saying thank you, you know? Because we are- we’re supposed to be so close that thank you isn’t necessary? To me that’s crazy.
Xia: And then we also agree to not let the fight… go over night.
Kai: I mean, the diagnosis was a big- was a huge event in our lives and… I think changed a lot or just maybe affirmed certain things. The diagnosis is fairly severe and… I am kind of, sort of in denial about it, I don’t- I can’t face it day to day… I think it’s still to be seen how that impacts our relationship I know it’s more top of your mind, and my denying it on a day to day is kind of the only way that I know how to process it
Kai: And, it’s, I think that’s come out more recently than anything else, I mean this is was diagnosed over five years ago.
Kai: I guess early on, right after the diagnosis, for the first year or two, I was kind of actively trying to plan things out and make sure that we had our lives together.
Xia: Yeah, I- I so hated the topics, I think, back then you were talking about writing wills…
Kai: Oh, yeah! And we did! I did! [Laughter].
Xia: You did, I did not want to participate in that…
Kai: I know that, I remember
Xia: – so scary, so scary to think of that.
Kai: And I guess that was my approach, ‘Let’s get all of it together and then forget about it.’
Kai: And pretend that life is back to normal, and I think on the outside we kind of are back to normal, right? On the inside we’re not so much at all, right? As much as possible, the health stuff is contained as it can be, we have done all that we can do, I’ve done all that I can do, and… the rest of it is what it is.
Xia: It’s still there all the time, when I’m all happy, when I see Tian go to school, being the lucky one who gets to travel around the world and been to so many countries with us, but then it’s all behind my head, like ‘Okay, maybe this is just for now, who knows how long this will last, maybe he’ll be the most unlucky kid in the whole class in not… having a dad still alive when he grows up. So it’s always there when I have- felt like the happiest moment.
Kai: Yeah, no, the same.
Xia: guess we are… much more open? With communication, would you say it that way?
Kai: I think so, I mean I think we’ve- it kind of forces us to have some serious conversation.
Xia: Like not- deciding not to have a second child.
Kai: I don’t know. I guess I like to think that, we probably wouldn’t have had a second either way, do you think that?
Kai: What? You think- that’s a big part of your decision?
Xia: I thought that was an advantage of coming to the US, finally I don’t have to follow China’s one child policy! I can have a second child!
Kai: But you think that the diagnosis really impacted not having a second?
Kai: For you? Really?
Xia: Yes. Yes, I was so scared; I’m like – because this happened when Tian was a baby!
Kai: I know, I absolutely know. I know.
Xia: He was ten months old and I’m like ‘I don’t want to have a second child and have to raise both of them all by myself.’ That sort of immediately changed my mind.
Kai: Ok! I- I honestly was not- I didn’t know that.
Xia: But I didn’t know that you didn’t want to- you may not want to have a second child.
Kai: I mean I’ll say this, five years ago, at diagnosis… I don’t think any of us knew…
Xia: …that you would live this long.
Kai: That’s right… right? So in that way I feel like ‘Hey, every day,’ it’s going to sound corny but, ‘Every day is a blessing,’ you know?
Xia: I used to be a very positive person, right? Very, very positive – When I had a good job, making a lot of money and I’m still one of the only girls coming out of that village and found that job all by myself, and successful. But now I just don’t ever consider myself being successful.
Kai: How I feel like I’ve robbed you of- in some way, of that feeling of being lucky or successful, lucky more than anything. Because I remember early on our relationship, that you were kind of boastful that you were lucky, and when you would enter yourself into contests you would always somehow win and then I remember after the diagnosis feeling- I think you even told me, you know ‘I feel so damn unlucky’ I know that was just hard for me to hear because how can I ever give that back to you? I don’t know that I can ever give that back to you… and I guess that’s part of what hearing you say that ‘diagnosis impacted the decision to not have a second kid’ it weights heavy on me, you know, I mean that was… honestly not something I was aware of until just now.
Xia: On September 23rd, 2011, it was a Friday, you called me and you said your headache was really bad, I was-
Kai: You came and picked me up
Xia: They took you and I went with you the whole time, then this doctor who was very decisive, right? But, he said ‘You need to get a CAT scan. And if- I didn’t even know the word ‘mass.’ He said they found a big mass.
Xia: It just never occurred to me that there was something in your head, and…
Xia: Something in your head that was pressing it.
Xia: I guess after you explained to me what mass was, I guess, right? I realized ‘Oh, wow, this is, this is a huge mess. My life, my whole lucky life could fall apart like that.’ I was already thinking ‘Oh, my Gosh, I have to raise Tian alone.’ That was the first thing that came to my mind.
Kai: Yeah, that was an awful day, that was the worst day.
Xia: And the Monday after you had your first surgery.
Kai: That’s right.
Xia: Eight hours.
Xia: [Soft Crying].
Kai: Yeah. But here we are.
Xia: Gosh, September 23rd, I hate that day.
Kai: I know, and you remember the details much better than I do; it’s amazing to me.
Xia: Well, that day, it just, it changed our lives.
Kai: It did! It absolutely did.
Xia: You always encouraged me to look at what we have, look at what we have done, and that always cheered me up, always encouraged me.
Kai: I do feel like there’s a component of the diagnosis.
Kai: That has made us stronger, right?
Kai: Yeah, it’s made some of the more difficult decisions in life a little easier, I would say.
Kai: We try to really enjoy our weekends and do fun things with Tian and with ourselves.
Kai: We still fight, but, I think we fight better now. [Laughter] hopefully not as hard.
Xia: A lot less and again, I think I have learned much from you on how to be a better fighter and not…
Xia: And I apologize much more often than… let’s say…
Kai: Don’t- please don’t say most Chinese.
Xia: No, I wasn’t going to say that.
Kai: Okay, all right. I was just going to cut you off [Laughter].
Xia: I was going to say much more often than, like, ten years ago!
Kai: I agree, I agree, I agree with that, for sure.
Xia: I can easily say sorry to you now.
Xia: At least when I have that struggle with myself for deciding if I should say sorry to you or not, I can understand it better.
Kai: [Laughter] See, it’s good to hear that it’s a struggle,
Xia: I – I’m still like ‘You’re my family, you’re my husband, why do I need to tell you all of that?’
Xia: Why do I need to tell you how great you are or how not great I am?
Xia: I guess maybe we need to do that more often so we appreciate each other more often.
Kai: I think there’s been an appreciation but I think there’s also just stepping back and looking at how far we’ve come, that we met over fifteen years ago. Like, I don’t know what happened to the time and I love that I don’t know what happened to the time.
Host: The diagnosis Kai and Xia talked about in that conversation was, in fact, brain cancer. They are uncomfortable naming it as such. I’m struck, as I listen to them, about their courage to say things in their marriage, about how frustrated they are, or, what they like or don’t like. For example, Xia sharing that she wished Kai would do what normal Chinese husbands do, which is make everything okay when the wife is upset. Or, Kai’s frustration that Xia doesn’t like to apologize, or receive his thank you’s, or his gratitude. They also reflect on how far they’ve come. I don’t think you can reflect on how far you’ve come and how much better you are now, until you acknowledge to one another how hard it was. They do a beautiful job of that, whether it’s the cultural differences, or how much they’re fighting better, or the impact of the cancer diagnosis on both of them. Kai and Xia take every opportunity now to celebrate the little things and the moments in the day to day, including their son’s recent graduation from kindergarten.
Host: WHEN I HEAR KAI AND XIA’S STORY, I HEAR A REALNESS THAT HAS EMERGED FROM THEIR JOURNEY THROUGH HIS CANCER DIAGNOSIS. A REALNESS THAT HAS CHANGED MANY OF THEIR NOTIONS ABOUT WHAT LOVE LOOKS LIKE AND WHAT IS IMPORTANT IN A RELATIONSHIP.
AS WE LOOKED FOR A COUNTERPOINT TO THIS STORY, WE LEARNED ABOUT SOMETHING CALLED LAUGHTER THERAPY THAT MANY CANCER PATIENTS FIND IS VERY HEALING.
OUR NEXT GUEST IS DOCTOR KATHERINE PUCKETT, A PRACTICING LAUGHTER AND MIND-BODY THERAPIST. SHE’S THE NATIONAL DIRECTOR OF MIND-BODY MEDICINE at THE CANCER TREATMENT CENTERS OF AMERICA.
Andy: What do you notice happens with couples when they have a diagnosis of cancer?
Katherine: My experience has been that a cancer diagnosis can either bring a couple closer together or put distance between them and that depends both on what each person in the couple brings to the relationship and also how they communicate and the courage with which they’re willing to speak about the hard topics, and I’ve seen it go both ways.
Katherine: The person needs a lot of support going through cancer and the last thing they need is for a partner to run the other way.
Andy: It sounds like what you’re saying is that there’s a possibility of a blessing to a cancer diagnosis.
Katherine: And it doesn’t usually happen right away. I think often happens with some time to process that information and a lot of times it takes some learning and some practice to learn how to talk about those really hard things.
Andy: Can you tell us more about the laughter therapy program that you started and what it’s like working with clients?
Katherine: We’re not using props or materials. We are just doing these silly goofy laughter exercises that are a great stress buster because they take people’s minds off the hard stuff that they’re going through and bring them into the present moment. It’s a very mindful activity. Meaning, it’s really just in the here and now.
It also has health benefits. Laughing can release endorphins which are the feel-good chemicals that can ease physical pain and elevate mood, sends more oxygen to the brain which helps with learning and memory and creativity.
Katherine: My favorite warm-up is just focus on the three laughter centers of the body. Did you know you have three laughter centers of your body?
Andy: I didn’t.
Katherine: You have the Hee-Hee center in your head, the Ha-Ha center in your heart, and you want to guess what the one is in your belly? It’s the Ho-Ho center.
Andy: The Ho-Ho, of course.
Katherine: If you really let it rip, hee-hee-hee-hee! [Laughing]. I hope it does not blast in your ear out [Laughter].
We say that we start with fake laughter, simulated laughter if we need to, to get people into it. By the end of that short exercise, it’s virtually always authentic laughter and when else in life are you invited to cut loose like that, you know?
Katherine: I think one of the challenges going through cancer so often people have heard, “You have to be positive to get through cancer, to have a good outcome.” And so people are afraid to share their real feelings. Sometimes you know I’ve seen it where a patient is crying and their loved one says, “No, no, don’t cry. Remember, you have to be positive.” Our approach here is to help people be real.
And generally, we find that when a person can do that, they’re then more able to be positive or optimistic. And a lot of times it takes educating the caregiver too. Because, you know, usually people were plopped in to this role as a caregiver without any preparation or training for that. And, they want to do their best. They’re trying to help their loved one with cancer get through it the best way they can.
So, sometimes our work is helping them learn how to navigate that together. Sometimes they think as a caregiver, I’m just supposed to be all positive myself, helping my loved one through the cancer.
Andy: A lot of undoing of misconceptions about how you’re supposed to show up. And that it’s okay to be, as you say, real, which includes all the emotions, not just positive.
Katherine: Often what the caregivers have indicated to us is that they’re afraid if they bring up those hard things to talk about, like financial plans or even funeral plans, even if the person isn’t nearing end of life, they’re afraid that they’re going to be viewed as not hopeful. And then sometimes patients also have wanted to bring up those hard things, but they’re afraid that their caregiver will think they’re giving up.
So, what I’ve tried to emphasize to people is that the best time to have those hard conversations is when you’re not in a crisis or an emergency. You know, if you can do it when you’re feeling well and you’ve got the luxury of having some time to just relax and think and talk through those things together, although some people feel it’s really morbid, we stress that it’s actually really caring, self caring, and caring for your partner to do that. Because, then you can have peace of mind. What we’re trying to do is connect with that natural part inside each of us that loves to laugh and to play. Often, especially going through cancer, people have lost touch with that. They have not found anything funny in quite some time. It just brings people back in touch with themselves, that natural, healthy part of themselves. And then they share it together and take it home.
Andy: The impact of a life threatening diagnosis giving people permission to let go and just to do things they wouldn’t normally do in their own lives and in their relationships.
Katherine: Right. And I think so often people feel or believe that if you have a cancer diagnosis, it has to change your entire life. And, you’ll be unhappy from then on and it does not have to be the case. And that doesn’t mean that we don’t take seriously people’s grief and fear and the mourning they’re going through. But many of our patients, I mean they’ve taught me that a cancer diagnosis, surprisingly, can be a really good thing if it opens up possibilities in life, if it teaches you to experience things that you hadn’t let yourself experience before, it can be life changing in a positive way no matter what the eventual outcome.
Host: That is Dr. Katherine Puckett, she’s a practicing laughter and mind-body therapist. She’s also the national Director of Mind-Body Medicine at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
Host: IN ORDER TO CHANGE THE DIALOG AROUND INTIMATE PARTNERSHIP WE NEED TO FIRST DEBUNK THIS MYTH OF HAPPILY EVER AFTER.
AND THEN WE NEED TO CONSIDER A NEW WAY OF THINKING ABOUT THE ARC OF BEING IN A RELATIONSHIP. WHAT WE’RE DOING AT ELEPHANT TALK IS RECORDING COUPLES SITTING FACE TO FACE, TALKING ABOUT THIS THING CALLED THEIR RELATIONSHIP. ALL OF THEIR RELATIONSHIP, NOT JUST HOW THEY FELL IN LOVE AND HOW THEY MET — BECAUSE THAT’S JUST PART OF THE STORY. THAT’S WHERE ELEPHANT TALK BEGINS….
THANK YOU TO KAI AND XIA, AND DOCTOR KATHERINE PUCKETT.
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT LAUGHTER THERAPY, AS WELL AS HOW TO SUPPORT THE DANA-FARBER CANCER INSTITUTE, VISIT OUR WEBSITE AT ELEPHANTTALK.ORG.
OUR PRODUCERS ARE LISA GRAY AND KIM POLETTI. OUR THEME MUSIC IS BY ROB BURGER. ADDITIONAL MUSIC BY JASMINE BRUNCH, DAVID GILDEN, SCOTT HALLGREN, AND PRETTYHOWTOWN. AUDIO PRODUCTION ASSISTANCE PROVIDED BY LESLIE GASTON-BIRD AND JOSH KERN.
I’M YOUR HOST ANDY HORNING. IF YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE YOUR STORY OR COMMENTS, VISIT US AT ELEPHANTTALK.ORG. SUBSCRIBE TO THE PODCAST ON ITUNES, STITCHER, SOUNDCLOUD, OR WHEREVER YOU GET YOUR PODCAST. AND THANK YOU FOR LISTENING.
THIS IS REAL LOVE. THIS IS ELEPHANT TALK.