Sabbatical in China – Fall Semester

Byer Family Stories

Owen sent us a number of stories during the fall. His stories show that even ordinary tasks can become an adventure when you are in another country.

  • The Haircut – A simple haircut, what could be easier? (from the Winter 2007 Integram)
  • The Hospital – Getting sick is never fun, but it can be an adventure.

The Haircut

I went in for a hair cut yesterday. I was motioned over to the wash basin, where I tried to explain that I had already washed my hair, but then I remembered that in many shops they find it easier to cut the hair when it is wet, so I obliged. Barber #1 lay me down and gave me a lathery shampoo along with a scalp rub. Then I was ushered over to the chair for the haircut by Barber #2. He did a fine job, although it took quite awhile. I even succeeded in explaining how short I wanted it cut and that I did not want the sideburns he tried to leave me with. So, despite the fact that I had already been there for 40 minutes (rather than the 15 minutes I can get at the Hair Corral back in Harrisonburg), I was ready to leave happy.

But, no. Barber #1 again indicated that I should go back to the wash basin! What on earth? But I complied. I guess they wanted to wash out all of the little hairs that invariably get left on the top of my head after a haircut. The water was warm and it didn’t take too long, so I was still happy as I jumped up ready to go do something important, like catch wasps with chopsticks.

But, no again! Barber #3 motioned me back over to the chair again, waving a hair dryer. I don’t think my hair has ever been touched by a hair dryer; I wondered if maybe something akin to Samson losing his strength when his hair was cut would happen to me if went through with their plan. However, since I couldn’t think of any personal characteristic that seemed so important that I couldn’t lose it for this experience, I obliged again. But, I must have been fresh meat for Barber #3, because he didn’t just dry my hair. After his obvious initial disappointment that I said “bu yao” (meaning “I don’t want that”) when he offered to use gel in my hair, he proceeded to fuss over it with a comb, teasing it this way and that. It was sometime during this second turn in the chair that I realized that I wasn’t getting a haircut—I was having my hair styled! Of course, many of you probably do this regularly, but it was a new experience for me. Well, once my hour was up, they must have thought they earned their money, so they let me go. I must admit that other than being a bit poofy on top, I thought it looked pretty good. So, what did I pay for this entire experience? Five Chinese RMB, which is the equivalent of about 62 cents in the USA. And to think that I paid $7 for a haircut right before we came to China so that I wouldn’t have to get it cut for a while once we got here!

— Owen Byer

The Hospital

On Saturday afternoon, October 22, I started to not feel so well, and by Sunday I knew I was sick. Unlike my previous illness, this one was in my head. By this I mean that I had a fever instead of a belly ache, not that I was suffering from hypochondria. On Sunday night I called fellow CEEer Holly and asked her to let my students in Monday’s classes know I wouldn’t be there due to illness (and of course, to give them the homework assignment!). Sure enough, by Monday morning my temperature was 102 degrees Fahrenheit (which I hope is about 39 degrees Celsius, because that is what I’ve been telling everyone).

Word spread quickly and many of our Chinese friends called or stopped by to wish me well and offer suggestions. Several students even wrote me and said that they missed me (which I think is the Chinese way of saying “I’m glad we didn’t have class today.”). One of our friends stopped by Monday morning and said I needed to take some Chinese medicine; I didn’t argue, despite the awful smell that had permeated our apartment the time he was here to mix a brew for his own ailment. After all, I’m here to experience the culture, right? Off to the drug store he went to return quickly with two different six packs of dried ingredients, which I was to mix together three times per day and drink as hot tea. I was a bit skeptical of how I had just spent 10 yuan ($1.25), but it was actually pretty good! It reminded me of Postum, which I haven’t had in about 30 years. I figured with, rest, water, and this Postum, I would be back on my feet again soon. Miss Cao, the assistant in the foreign affairs office whose main duty (I think) is to make sure that foreign teachers in the English department are being taken care of, called and asked if I wanted to go to the doctor. I said it probably wasn’t necessary, but I would call her the next day if I wasn’t feeling better.

Fast forward to Tuesday afternoon… My fever was again back up to 102, so I called Miss Cao. She said she would take me to the college’s hospital (which is where one goes to see a doctor here—they do not seem to have private practices). She arrived shortly to escort me there, which was very nice. The hospital was about a mile away, but we set out on foot, which probably wasn’t such a good idea. She let me know that the medicine I was taking was useless, but I’m not sure how she knew that—after all, a future doctor had purchased it for me! Perhaps she based her assessment on the fact that I’d been taking it for two days and I was still sick?

When we arrived, I paid the customary 2 yuan (25 cents), which got us our appointment ticket and doctor consultation. Actually, all I had was a Y100, which they didn’t want, so Miss Cao graciously paid for me. Let me say something here about this hospital. Our college is a medical college (by the time we leave, I hope to have an understanding of why there are English majors here), so its hospital is considered the premier hospital in this part of Sichuan province. Peasants from the country come a long way to receive treatment here. This might explain why it only cost 2 yuan to get an appointment and also why I passed several large baskets of live chickens in the hall on our way to the office.

We eventually found our examination room. I was very grateful to have Miss Cao to help me, because all of the rooms were labeled in Chinese. I peered in through the open door to see a doctor (I assumed, based on his white coat) talking with patient #1. Patient #2 was patiently waiting at the same table examining x-rays. Soon, patient #3 (me) was waiting impatiently in the fourth chair in the room. I knew privacy was not an issue because I had been to the hospital with Cameron before and knew that the examination rooms doubled as waiting rooms. The rooms do have a sheet that presumably can be pulled in front of the bed if the exam is deemed to require such measures. Soon patient #2 chimed in with a comment; evidently the two were there together, so I suddenly became Patient #2!

The couple soon departed and I moved to the former seat of Patient #1. The doctor spoke to me in Chinese, I assume asking me what was wrong. Miss Cao spoke for me, as I had given her a brief synopsis on the way over. He wanted to know how long I had felt ill (3 days), whether I had a headache (a little bit) and whether I had a fever (39 degrees Celsius). While he was jotting down my name (By the way, I’m on a first name basis at the hospital—they don’t know my last name, my S.S.#, my employer, my height, my weight, my insurance provider, or who to call in case of an emergency.) and some Chinese characters, I used my dictionary and tried to explain that perhaps I had bronchitis. He nodded, and said in broken English, “Yes you have a cold.” I said, “No, not a cold, more serious,” as he beckoned us out. I was bewildered; he had not examined me at all! He hadn’t even earned his quarter! Wasn’t he going to make me say “Ahhh” while peering down my throat or use the stethoscope that I observed strewn across his desk? Perhaps he smelled the Postum that I had gulped down immediately prior to coming to see him, coming from my mouth of unbrushed teeth, and he didn’t want to get near me. But then I remembered from my previous visit with Cameron for his planter’s wart that Doctor #1 only provided the preliminary diagnosis and that Doctor #2 would provide the treatment (or in this case, hopefully a more thorough investigation). On the way out, Miss Cao told me my illness was serious. I didn’t know what that meant, really. Of course, if an English speaking doctor had told me that I would have been alarmed, but I have gotten used to the fact that when one is speaking her second language, she must grope for words and the one that is ultimately selected might not convey the intended meaning. At least, this is what I hoped!

So, up and down the stairs we went in search of (I thought) Dr. #2. During the journey, I asked what the doctor was going to do, and Miss Cao stumbled a bit before coming up with the word “transfusion!” My shock lasted briefly and I quickly decided that she meant they were going to draw blood for testing. I was starting to tire a bit, so, being the man, I suggested we stop and ask for directions. A kind young doctor (#3) smoking profusely in an empty exam room pointed us downstairs. Actually, he probably said something in Chinese, but I was only looking for hand signals. Off we went again, aided at one intersection by a Chinese/English sign blocking the way, where the English read “Pedestrian Halt.” Downstairs, we asked for help again and were pointed toward the second door on the right. But this office had a boulder on the floor and a big hole in the back wall! So, we went through door #1 instead, which also had a hole in the back wall. Fortunately this hole was in the form of a door, which led us out of the building and into a courtyard.

On the way to the new building, Miss Cao said that Doctor #1 had said I should stay in bed for 3 days. When I told her I had already been in bed for three days (only a slight exaggeration), she said maybe it should be for another three days. I laughed and didn’t think much about it at the time.

In the new building Miss Cao suggested I take a rest while she made some inquiries. I gratefully sank into a chair in a large empty waiting room and propped my feet up on the chair in front of me. Momentarily, I became aware of a constant pounding and ringing in my head. It might have been my illness, but I rather suspect that it was due to the worker I spied standing on a ledge in an adjacent building, knocking out the concrete wall with a large sledgehammer. I trusted that he would stop before getting to a supporting post!

After about ten minutes Miss Cao took me down the hall where she informed me I must now pay for the services. We were not with Dr. #2 after all, but rather with a staff member who wanted 500 yuan (over $60)! I was alarmed for two reasons: 1) This seemed a bit high for a blood test, compared to the prices I’d become accustomed to in China, and 2) I only had 200 yuan in my pocket. I asked what it was for and Miss Cao informed that this was the initial fee for being admitted to the hospital for three days! I learned later that I would be refunded a portion of that after my stay. I quickly backed us out of the line and suggested that Miss Cao call someone who could better explain what was going on. I wasn’t going to stay in a hospital for three days when the doctor hadn’t even examined me!

She called Mr. Jin (another member of the foreign affairs office) on her cell phone and talked furiously for several moments before handing me the phone. I was slightly annoyed that she kept turning her back to me during her conversation (as if I could understand her better if I could see her face!) while I was trying to show her the word “antibiotic” in my dictionary. Anyway, Mr. Jing thought I was concerned about the money, but I explained that that was not the case. I simply wanted to know on what basis they thought I should be in the hospital, when all I needed was an antibiotic. However, due to the poor phone connection and language barrier I didn’t really understand much of what Mr. Jing said, but I did determine that the word Miss Cao had sought was injection, not transfusion. I then told Miss Cao that I could go get an injection, but I wasn’t going to stay in the hospital.

So, back to Dr. #1 we went, where it appeared that I was now Patient #4. While waiting, I finally succeeded in informing (using my dictionary, of course) Ms. Cao that all I needed was an antibiotic; she replied that we did not need to see a doctor to obtain that, which of course didn’t help matters at that point! She apologized for wasting my time, cut in line, and began speaking to Dr. #1 as if I were Patient #1. During this time, Mr. Jin surprisingly arrived to help, decked out in sweat pants and carrying two badminton rackets. Another flurry of words were exchanged and soon Dr. #1 was smiling wryly (I wish I knew what he was thinking) and writing a prescription.

We went downstairs to have the prescription filled. Unfortunately they do not have copays in China, so I had to pay the entire amount of 116.2 yuan (about $15) for three different medicines. Supposedly they work together, but I still don’t know what they are supposed to treat. Each is to be taken three times a day, which means I had enough to last for 2 − 4 days, depending on the medicine. It struck me as odd that I had six pills of one type, eight of the second type, and twelve of the third type, when they were supposed to work in tandem (kind of like buying a pack of ten hotdogs along with a pack of eight buns).

On our walk home, Mr. Jin explained to me that in Chinese medicine the doctor often chooses a diagnosis based on the patient’s description of his symptoms. Hence there was no need to examine my throat, listen to my breathing, or take my temperature. I said this wouldn’t work in sue-happy America!

I arrived home in good spirits (really!) about two hours after departing and immediately popped three of the pills. I then took my temperature and discovered that, despite all the exercise, it had dropped to 101.5 degrees. Maybe there was something to this Chinese medicine after all!

Now, I would be remiss if I let this story leave a negative impression of health care in China in general, or this hospital in particular. Certainly the examination rooms and facilities are not on par with those in a typical American doctor’s office. However, I have been assured (and I believe) that the medical care here is quite good. The doctors are very well trained and safe hygiene is indeed practiced where necessary. Much of what I experienced is certainly just due to cultural differences and should not be taken as a negative reflection on the quality of care here.

— Owen Byer

If you want more of Owen’s stories, just ask.