A Trip to the Doctor
At Middlebury’s Kunming School Abroad everyone gets pretty close pretty fast. It makes sense: 20 young Westerners trying to learn the most difficult language on earth while struggling to make sense of a culture that historically has had nothing to with ours until, arguably, the past forty years. One of the many common experiences that bring us together is food-related illness. China may be rapidly developing, but (especially if you come to the less-developed southeast of China) the food will probably get to you at some point no matter who strong you think your stomach is. A common conversation had in the hall outside our classrooms might sound something like:
“Hey, long time no see, how have you been recently?”
“Not so good, that bowl of noodles I had for lunch the other day gave me some pretty nasty diarrhea.”
“Oh no, I’m sorry. At least you haven’t been vomiting, though. It was coming out both ends for me a few weeks ago after eating some Xinjiang kebob on the street.”
I know, not the nicest topic, but its common ground, like the weather or sports, something we all have gone through are going through, or will go through pretty soon. Everyone has his or her little piece of advice for a quick recovery, from the obvious (don’t eat greasy things or meat) to the not so obvious (only drink hot water and don’t eat bananas—this came from my roommate).
Well, until a couple weeks ago, I was in the minority of people who had remained healthy for my first two and a half months in China and couldn’t commiserate with my classmates on the topic. I was beginning to get a little cocky, bragging about how my stomach could take even the greasiest of grilled pig feet. But then we went to Luoping.
That weekend was one of the few we didn’t have tests, so many of us took advantage of a free Friday (and a nice 200 RMB reimbursement from our program) to explore Yunnan, regarded by many as one of the best places to travel in China. Two of our Chinese roommates and three of us decided to go to the city of Luoping, four hours east of Kunming. Although the city itself is kind of a dump, the countryside surrounding Luoping is naturally covered in Rapeseed (Canola) flowers, which bloom in brilliant yellow every February and March. The area is relatively unknown to Westerners (it didn’t even make it into Lonely Planet), but thousands of camera toting domestic tourists visit every year to catch a glimpse of the sprawling sheets of golden Rapeseed punctured by brown karst peaks.
We spent the weekend exploring the fields of flowers in a dumpy little van driven by one of the many locals who make a living by taking tourists around to see the fields. We were also able to do a little “hiking” (hiking in China means walking on a paved path lined with tourist stands). The second day, we “hiked” along a river called Duoyihe. It was a very pleasant walk along a slow moving stream dotted with ancient wooden watermills. When we arrived at the end of the paved path, we came upon an opening filled with food tents manned by Buyi people, one of the 25-odd ethnic minorities that populate the incredibly diverse Yunnan Provence. Many of the old women wore traditional turquoise, red and pink attire and headgear to cover their round faces and dark skin. They sat around small makeshift grills cooking fish straight from the river, potatoes, and other local delicacies like chewy rice cakes. Hungry from the walk, I couldn’t resist a fresh, grilled fish—it looked so good. And it WAS so good: the flesh fell right off the translucent bones and mixed perfectly with the spicy sauce the Buyi woman had put on it. But, as I would later find, my stomach and bowels seemed to think differently…
A week later on the short walk over to the Kunming Wuhua People’s Hospital from the dorm I was surprisingly unworried. My roommate had come along with me and we were in a nice part of town. Plus, I wasn’t THAT sick. Yes, I was going on a 6 days of diarrhea, but I had an appetite and didn’t have a fever. So I didn’t feel the need to make my roommate accompany me all the way across town to Richland International Hospital in an expensive cab and then pay an extra 100 RMB for “international” service, when all I had was a little bout of the runs. Plus, I was excited for another authentic Chinese experience.
The next thing I knew, I was sitting in a cramped office with whitewashed walls next to a middle-aged woman with a white jacket typing on a computer. She quickly fired off questions about my recent stomach issues, which I answered with the aid of my slight, bespectacled roommate Yin Hao who stood besides me. After just a few brusque questions, she seemed to be satisfied and handed me a small plastic cup. I took it and looked at my roommate who gave me an embarrassed smile. I knew what I had to do; I had done it before, no problem.
After walking around the hospital for a few minutes, we discovered the hospital only had one bathroom for non-inpatients. This bathroom both looked and smelled like those found at rest stops on Chinese highways. Flies swarmed around the squatter toilets and the dilapidated tiled trough that served as a urinal. I pulled the front of my t-shirt up over my mouth and nose and took a deep breath.
My roommate was waiting patiently with my coat and bag when I came out. We walked backed up the four flights of stairs, weaving through nurses and patients. When we arrived at the lab, I gave my sample to the young, goggle-clad man standing behind the glass window, and then said in Chinese, “The bathroom didn’t have a sink, is there a place I can wash my hands?” He looked up for long enough to give me a look that seemed to say, “Wash your hands? Really? Go back to America kid, you can wash your hands there.” I took that as a no.
Becoming increasingly frustrated, I looked at my roommate and said to him, “I really need to wash my hands. This is unsanitary. There has to be a place in this hospital where I can wash my hands.” He nodded compassionately, and said, “Let’s go, we will find a place I am sure.” I followed him up and down the floors of the hospital looking for a sink, a tap, a well, anything. Finally, we found a room with two men in white coats sitting in it glancing through papers. On the far wall hung a small sink with soap. I walked to the doorway and asked in Chinese,
“I can’t find a place to wash my hands, would it trouble you if I washed my hands here?”
“Wash your hands?” one of the doctors responded with a blank look on his face.
“Yes, wash my hands,” I repeated, this time making sure that my tones were correct.
“Wash your hands?” he repeated again, seemingly buying time to process my request. ‘Is this a joke?’ I thought, ‘or is my Chinese really that bad?’
“Yes, can I wash my hands at that sink?”
“Okay,” he finally said after pausing for several more seconds. Relieved, I went over and started scrubbing my palms and fingers thoroughly with soap, going over every crevice and under every fingernail for the requisite 30 seconds. As I started rinsing, the doctors began looking over, wondering why I was taking so long. There was only a grimy looking towel hanging on the wall, so I walked out with damp hands and took my backpack and coat from my roommate.
We walked down to the first floor to await the test results. After a couple minutes waiting outside the first office we had gone into, the same doctor called my roommate back in to explain my results. He talked with her for a few minutes, and then came out carrying some pieces of paper. After some Charade and emphatic pointing (my medical vocabulary still needs some work), I figured out my problem was not serious, I didn’t need antibiotics, it was just irritated intestines. So I was done. I knew the problem. I could get out of this place.
Back at the dorm, I told some of my classmates my story and after venting out my frustration we began parsing out what might cause a culture that in some ways is so obsessed with sanitation (for example, most Chinese people refuse to touch anything that’s fallen on the floor), to care so little about the basic act of hand washing. Maybe because Chinese people think rinsing their hands with cold water will make them sicker than not rinsing at all (most Chinese people only use hot water for drinking and washing)? Maybe because Chinese bathrooms use squatter toilets and Chinese people carry their own personal toilet paper so there is no need to touch anything in a bathroom and thus no germs to wash off? In fact, maybe in a country where soap and automatic sinks are found only in the nicest of hotels, touching a germ-infested sink handle, especially at a hospital, could actually be more unsanitary than washing your hands? Next time, I concluded, I would bring my bottle of Purell hand sanitizer, however American it made me look, but at the same time I would not judge Chinese people for their different, if not quirky ideas toward sanitation.