Most of my first week in China is a blur. I don’t know if it was just adrenaline, or every waking moment being more bizarre than the last, but a large part of my memory gap is probably because of the time I spent waiting in lines. Whether you are activating your bank card or connecting to your dorm’s wifi, you soon find out that in China nothing is as easy as it should be. Every simple transaction is dragged out into a bureaucratic nightmare. Take the bank card for example: After a two-hour wait (and 30 minutes of Chinese-to-English translation practice with the teller), I discovered my school had not given the bank my middle name. So because the name in their system did not exactly match the name in my passport, I couldn’t access my account. Now this is all in the computer, I figured, so it should be an easy fix they can do on the spot, right? Wrong. “You need to go to the main branch,” the teller told me in Chinese, handing me a slip of paper with hastily scrawled directions, also written in Chinese. At home this would have been annoying, but in an unfamiliar city in which I still hadn’t gotten my bearings or grasped the language, I just embraced the absurdity and had to laugh rather than cry.
I found the main branch of the bank, a short twenty minute walk away, and was joined by one of my fellow exchange students who was facing the same problem. She was from Lesotho, a little country I learned is actually within South Africa. Because her English was better than my Chinese, we were able to commiserate about the situation as we waited for yet another hour. I wondered aloud if the situation might be different if I had chosen to study abroad in Lesotho. “Well yes,” she said, “at home they assist you. But here in China you’re just on your own.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. This would be the recurring theme throughout my journey in China, whether it was sorting out my arrival or my eventual return home. Not only are many of the professionals in China unable or unwilling to help you, their offices look as disorganized as they feel. My school’s main office was stacked high with cardboard boxes and old computer equipment, looking more like a hoarder’s apartment than an office at a major university. This sloppiness and disorganization extends even to the medical system, which brings me to the hospitals.
My first hospital visit was scheduled in advance. Part of applying for a residence permit is a mandatory medical exam, which includes everything from an EKG to a chest x-ray, as well as blood tests for HIV and syphilis. I never heard an explanation as to why they did this, but my guess is it’s all about the HIV and syphilis. Nor did I find out what they do with you if you are indeed found to have some contagious disease. Deportation seems a little extreme, but compared to summary execution or reeducation-through-labor camps I guess “extreme” is all relative. The irony of getting a chest x-ray before living in Beijing wasn’t lost on me either. Maybe their hope is to find every pre-existing case of lung disease they can so they don’t get all the credit. In any case, the exam is very thorough, and the first show of China’s ability to literally put its fingers into your personal life.
On the morning of the exam, my fellow exchange students and I all gathered in my university’s apartotel lobby (See below. I didn’t know it was a thing either.) to be bussed out to the hospital. It was still in those earliest weeks, and in spite of a pretext that should scare anyone—today I’m going to a Chinese hospital for my mandatory medical exam—I was still able to approach it with morbid curiosity and even a little excitement. As I stood waiting to be herded on to one of the busses, I chatted with a fellow American student. “I always get nervous going into exams like this,” she said, “I mean, what if it turns out I actually have AIDS?” As I wondered about her lifestyle, I began to hear the shrill twang of instructions being shouted in Chinese. We were starting to board. I think there were five busses, four filled only with Koreans, the fifth reserved for the people from everywhere else. At least that’s how it felt. Even in the exchange student community we Anglophones were completely outnumbered.
The bus ride was long, taking us well beyond Beijing’s fifth ring road. In the normal world this would be like driving to a completely different city, but here we were merely going to another part of the city, a more quiet and creepy part. If there was a scenic route to this hospital, we didn’t take it. Something about the gray cityscape reminded me of old war movies. The dreary apartment blocks, barbed wire fences, and propaganda billboards passing by the window made me feel as if we should have been riding in cattle cars rather than comfortable busses. When we finally arrived at the hospital, it did little to lift my spirits. Even if the place had been clean and new, it would still be a particularly grim example of communist architecture. As it stood, it was not only oppressive, but dilapidated, its color palette reduced to rust and Bolshevik gray. A sad collection of trash cans sat rotting in front of us as we disembarked from our busses. Weeds grew happily in every direction, while shady looking men with their verifiably shady black taxis (hei che) milled around and smoked outside the entrance. These are the illegal taxis you take if you’re in a hurry and willing to overlook the risk of getting shaken down or kidnapped.
After yet another wait in the longest line I had ever seen, we were released into the hospital to make our own way to the various exam rooms. The first stop was to get our blood drawn (surprise surprise), which was done by friendly women who weren’t wearing gloves. After that disconcerting encounter, I stepped out into the hall to see a pair doctors in surgical masks enthusiastically waving me towards another open door. As I bounced from room to room, exam to exam, the whole thing started to feel like the carnival midway: “Step right this way! We have your chest x-ray right here!” I can say this for the hospital, it may have been the only place in China that seemed to operate with any efficiency. Each test was so quick it seemed to be over as soon as it began. I’d walk into a room and suddenly many pairs of hands would be pulling up my shirt and sticking electrodes on my chest, and then—done. On to the next room. The whole thing probably took less than fifteen minutes. So again I found myself on the blighted street, a little dazed, left to find a (legitimate) taxi ride home.
I couldn’t have known it at the time, but this would be the easy hospital visit. My next trip was not planned in advance, and not nearly as pleasant. That story is just another example of China’s ability to top itself, and to throw something unexpected at you just when you think the worst is over. As time went on, my friends and I began to see it as a contest: us vs. China. In other words, we were keeping score. Each time we met, we would discuss whether we had “won” or China had. Did it manage to break our spirit today, or did we stay resolute? After making it home from my medical exam, I felt I had won. But it wasn’t over. “If you thought that first hospital visit was weird,” China seemed to be saying, “just see what I have in store for you next. . .”