Friends Hospital

Fiction by Bradford Philen


“No, not figuratively dimmer, actually dimmer.” 

With that, professor Zhi Xun nodded to the student in the audience who had asked the question. He was a doctor actually, professor Zhi Xun: an esteemed Doctor of Philosophy in Chinese history. The student was Bill Hurley, an American, from Dover, Indiana, studying and working in Beijing on a Fulbright scholarship. Bill figured he was nearly fluent in Chinese, but thought maybe he was missing something. 

The panel discussion Life after Mao and Mao in the After-Life had just ended. There were artists, politicians, government officials, writers, and scholars on the panel. Mostly Chinese men. Zhi Xun was taking a few questions.

“It is a scientific fact,” Zhi Xun continued. “When Chairman Mao died in 1976, we have astronomical measurements that the sun grew dimmer.”

His face didn’t move or twitch and his eyes didn’t wander to see the audience react. It was as if he’d said something so known to be true, speaking it had little value. Chinese eat rice with chopsticks. True always and always true. The birth of Mao brought the shining sun in the Far East. True and true and true.

Bill scanned the room. He figured he needed to be cautious. He needed to remember he was less than a pawn at the moment. What would he say anyway? What would he say to refute an esteemed Chinese historian? No one refuted Zhi Xun. Ever. He was tall. Broad back. Strict posture. Thick-rimmed glasses that sort of sagged on the tip of his nose. Vigorous voice.

Bill let it go, but scribbled notes on his notepad in scribbly cursive so an eavesdropper or a nose-dipper couldn’t decipher his words. Man deadpan believes the sun got dimmer after Mao’s death.

After a moment of reflection, however, Bill exhaled. You had to open your mind in a place like China. There had been wilder claims in the wide world. Hitler had suckered a nation in a matter of a few years. There was Geronimo. The Atlantic Slave Trade. America tricked Russia out of Alaska for a few measly millions. You had to keep perspective.

No way Zhi Xun really believed that, Bill thought. Right?

Then Bill had a heart attack. Or, he felt like he was having a heart attack—like he’d been stabbed in his sternum with a butter knife. Why couldn’t it be a butcher knife instead? Quicker and certainly less painful. The butter knife ground into his sternum in rhythmic jabs, like an inmate digging through a prison wall.

The panel finished. The auditorium doors opened, and the audience lined the aisles to leave. When Bill staggered to the exit, he fell, grabbing at his chest like he wanted to pull out the pain. The panelists were just behind him. They all said he’s having a heart attack

“It’s not that,” Zhi Xun said. He pulled Bill to his feet. “Follow me.”

“You speak English?” Bill said. 

“Call me Chandler,” Zhi Xun said.

 “What?” Bill said, gasping for breath. 

“Please, just Chandler.”

Bill staggered alongside Chandler in a daze. The butter knife wasn’t grinding as violently now. He tried to concentrate on what was actually happening. Professor Zhi Xun speaks English. He has an English name, and it’s Chandler. And then Bill passed out. 

He woke every now and again, in and out of consciousness. Once when he woke, it seemed like Zhi Xun was leading him to a navy blue van. What were the decals? The double-doors opened. How you doin? someone called. And then Bill was in the van. Chandler was still there.

“Where are you taking me?” Bill said.

Chandler seemed not to hear. Bill felt drunk, like he had been drugged. Maybe he had been.

When Bill finally woke, he was in a hospital room that looked like a living room. There was a couch, a television, an attached kitchen—except he was lying in the middle of it on a sterile, white hospital bed and hooked to an IV. 

How you doin?" 

It was the man from the van earlier. He was Chinese for sure, but sounded just like Joey Tribbiani from Friends. The man moved like him too: his lips, his eyebrows, his arms and legs. Was he a doctor? His doctor? Did Chinese Joey Tribbiani save his life?

Dr. Tribbiani came and went, as did the nurses. Each nurse was Rachel, Monica, or Phoebe. Not by looks, of course, the nurses were Chinese, but in their voices, facial expressions, and reactions. It was coming back to Bill: Friends. He was in Monica’s apartment. Bill grew up on Friends. Every Wednesday night on Dover’s Fox Channel 22. He hoped for Rachel to attend to him. Everyone liked Rachel the best. And then he thought about it more: was this a dream or the dream?

And then Bill noticed Chandler walk through the front door.

“Chandler,” Bill sort of whispered hurriedly, like he had an urgent secret, “get over here.”

Zhi Xun sauntered to Bill, just like Chandler Bing.

“Yes.” He held the middle “e” just long enough to reek sarcasm.

“What’s going on?” Bill said. “Where am I?” 

“At Friends Hospital.”

Bill blinked. “A Friends Hospital?”



“Aren’t you comfortable?”

Bill scanned the room once more slowly. Maybe it was the dream. 

“Actually, yeah, I feel great,” he said.

Chandler smiled and observed the room with Bill.

“It was one of the first initiatives of Mao’s After-Life Campaign. He knew China needed to connect to the West.”

“Chairman Mao did this?”

“No, no,” Chandler said, laughing.

Bill was still confused. “Then, why Friends?”

“It’s how we all learn English.” 



Friends.” Of course, Bill thought. Friends. “One more thing,” he said.


“Where’s Ross?”

“He’s working late at the museum. Again.”

Bill Hurley lay back in his hospital bed and relaxed. He was safe for sure. Chinese Chandler Bing and Chinese Joey Tribbiani had saved his life. Stranger things in the wide world had happened. Much stranger. You had to keep perspective.

Bradford Philen writes and teaches in Beijing. He's the author of two books and took part in the 2015 Bookworm Literary Festival. He's currently a MFA candidate with the University of Alaska Anchorage. His full list of publications can be found at