Tuesday, February 3, 2009


With a slight bow, a twinkling smile and a cheery “Good Morning Lady”, a bell boy sweeps opens the massive doors for me. I peer through the door cautiously and am astonished to find a veritable fairy tale land. I have neither crossed the wardrobe into Narnia nor fallen down a rabbit-hole into a fantasy world populated by peculiar creatures however; I have found a hospital that bears an eerie resemblance to an exclusive day spa.

I tip-toe inside and find perfectly coiffed, manicured, and slim nurses and welcoming receptionists who twitter away in perfect English. Perhaps, during their breaks, the nurses drink Green Tea and follow a government regulated Pilates DVD while the receptionists conjugate verbs, chanting together in a synchronized fashion. Where is the nurse who drinks diet coke, wipes her mouth to remove the remnants from her cream-filled donut, calls you honey and forgets to conjugate her verbs? For a moment, I expect a director to emerge form the shadows, snap his fingers, and have everyone break into a choreographed dance routine.

The receptionist glides towards me and I back away, fearful that she will insist on cleansing my pores, injecting my cheeks with cortisone or offering me a rose petal filled bath. Rather, she graciously offers me tea and a seat by the window where a large vase of orchids shares its sweetness with the guests. I sink into its warmth and watch CNN on the enormous television screen. I am soon distracted by the receptionist who asks a woman the following: “After giving birth, would you like the sushi-champagne or the beef-wine meal option?” Will she be offered some liposuction and cannabis for dessert as well?

The government hospitals are not quite as pleasant but of course, their prices are a miniscule fraction of those charged in the private hospitals. My first experience in a government hospital was upon our arrival. Chris, the Human Resources assistant at Andy’s office, picked us up from the hotel at 7.20am to escort us to our physical exam. One needed to take the exam and prove to be a ‘healthy’ person in order to receive residency papers and yes, being gay is considered a disease.

The receptionist had not yet arrived but Chris took a firm stance in front of her desk. Other patients began to trickle in, some taking seats and some milling about the receptionist’s desk. Intrigued with the woman seated next to me who was stuffing entire hard-boiled eggs into her mouth while talking with her friend, I did not notice the arrival of the receptionist until my toes were crushed by a sudden stampede of people. She ordered everyone into a cue and they hesitated but obliged. Was this part of the cultural training program imposed by the government in preparation for the Olympics? Order only lasted for a few minutes and people soon began to push one another, shouting and tossing papers. Somehow Chris managed to register us, get our numbers and usher us into the second reception room.

The staff, who wore ready-for-aerobics-baby-pink jumpsuits and face masks, gave us blue material slip-ons to place over our shoes before spraying us with a sanitizing spray which had avery-sweet-nauseating-sweet-fruity-flavor. Seated at a table encircling an enormous-bizarre-circa-1950 fish tank, I wondered why this smelly tank with offensive bits and pieces floating in its interior was considered sanitary whereas our shoes were considered unsanitary. In conveyor belt style, I was shuffled from one room to the next for a blood check, X-ray, EKG, ultra-sound and eye test, occasionally passing Andy in the hallway. After each check, the medical practitioner would bark through his/her face mask, sign off on my sheet and point me towards the door. I would bow my head, mutter ‘thank you’ in Chinese and scuffle away. However, one doctor seemed to be quite sweet since she smiled, right before flipping me off the table during her very brusque examination.

My second experience with a public hospital was yesterday afternoon. In October, Andy and I had taken Sandra to an ear doctor in a private clinic downtown and I needed to bring him some updated documents. However, I had misplaced his business-card-telephone-number-personal-data-strand-of-hair and struggled to track him down. I frantically scoured the internet and scribbled down an address I thought sounded familiar.

The entrance seemed familiar but the similarity ended there. There were thousands of people were pushing towards the windows tellers, some with wads of money in their hands and some clutching sobbing children. Many people were aggressively pushing forward whereas others had their eyes closed and allowed the stream of people to push them forward. Any attempt by hospital staff to form cues was dismissed. A group of people had miraculously managed to carve away a space for themselves and their plastic containers of food, spitting out bones as they laughed aloud. Traipsing over the discarded skeletal remains and sloshed soup on the floor, I aimed for what seemed to be an information desk since, according to the internet our doctor had rounds at this hospital as well.

I tried to make my way through the crowd by chirping out a meek “excuse me” every so often but after an octogenarian shoved me while screaming and wagging her finger, this tactic was quickly replaced by a strategic use of the elbow-knee and hip. Panting, dirty, bruised and exhausted, I made it to the information desk and pointing to my paper, I asked the receptionist if she knew Dr. Wang (yes, this is like asking for ‘Mary’ or ‘John’ in the United States). As she began to answer, a woman pushed her way past me, elbowed me and began to talk to the receptionist. I waited patiently until she was finished and then, in my broken Mandarin, continued to speak with the receptionist. I was interrupted two more times by two different people in the span of 4 minutes. On the fourth occasion I felt impatient-annoyed- agitated-and-overwhelmed-by-a-desire-to-be-violent. I did not smile at the fourth woman but rather, shoved her back with my flat palm on her shoulder, smiled and said “no, you wait.” I paused, fearful that this woman would come barreling down on me with all her wrath and physical ability. To my surprise, she blinked, smiled and turned away.

My heart still beating, I wandered about aimlessly in search of the Ear Department. All the signs were in Chinese and I wondered whether the squiggly line on the 5th floor or whether the square with a cross and a hook on the 7th floor referred to the ear department? I looked down to see a child peeing, the urine surreptitiously sliding towards my foot and I left.

No comments: