Sick, Dazed, and Confused in China

I was paid my last salary in cash, after a recurrent illness that took me to ER in a few occasions. The last time I got sick I still went to work, then my stomach was in so much pain I started crying and screaming. They called Elina, the coordinator, and she said she’d meet me at the nurse’s office in 20 minutes. At that point the part of the contract that says Part A will explain the rules and regulations of the country to Part B hadn’t been fulfilled, and despite of having been working at the school for almost a year they managed to never reveal which doctors or hospitals I had access to since the school didn’t provide health insurance, breaking one more of the clauses stipulated.

With the help of Paul, one of my students, I went to the nurse’s office where I was given three brown pills (I recognized this “medicine” from the very first time I got sick in China). These are supposed to stop the frequent diarrhea. Nevertheless, this time my body didn’t react so positively. The stomach spams increased, I was squirming, Paul helped me walk to the restroom, then we kept waiting for the coordinator. My confusion and despair grew bigger. I didn’t know which hospital to go to since the school hadn’t paid for my past medical bills and I didn’t have a hospital’s Chinese address to show to a taxi driver. I was thinking if only the coordinator showed up she’d be able to interpret between me and the doctors either at the Chinese or at the No. 2 hospital. One hour passed by and the pain was increasing so I looked for help at the international school. Paul helped me get there. As I explained the situation, the director immediately called for help and I was put in a taxi with instructions to take me to the Number 2 hospital making a little detour to the ATM for the hospital received cash only. Now I realize calling for help at the other school was a bad move, because this made my school lose face; but what  else can you do when facing a matter of life or death?

Once at the hospital, the angry VIP or Chinese interpreter (she didn’t like that she had been called last minute) started asking me questions. I had to tell her to cool it off. I was the one in pain, she was there to be the language bridge, plus she was getting paid for her time!  I had a fever, they wrote my symptoms, and plugged me to an IV for 4.5 hours. The VIP told me I had a virus, but she couldn’t tell what kind since the doctor was on another floor and everybody was pretty much getting ready to leave.

I came back home around 11:00 pm and texted my friends that I was okay. I was falling asleep around midnight when a drunk teacher who lived in the same building started banging on my door accusing me of betraying my school and faking my illness. One of my friends came downstairs and I pulled her in immediately while this teacher kept screaming that I had kidnapped my own friend! I called the police but they didn’t speak any English so they let him go with a pad on the back… and he banged on my door again at 3:45 am. I was recording as much as possible and sent the initial video to the school leaders.

The next day, Elina and four guards knocked on my door around 4:00 pm. Naively, I felt glad to see my video had caught their attention, but who was I in this country? Just a foreign woman teaching English to their children. The four guards and Elina were speaking in Chinese basically ignoring me, and the guards were invading all my space, pacing in my kitchen, bedrooms, looking around… I had the video with me and was ready to answer their questions, even to call my friend as a witness, but they didn’t let me speak. The school year was almost over so Elina pulled out a huge envelope filled with money explaining this was my last salary. She asked me to count the mountain of 100-yuan bills. I was still in naïveté mode feeling thankful they were paying me earlier while all the guards took photos of me counting. I confirmed the amount was right after making a bunch of 1,000-yuan packages.

“You have been sick for a long time and it’s better for you to go home to recover.” Said Elina. I was bewildered. What about the attack I had suffered the previous night? I pulled out the video, but they continued speaking in Chinese. “They will take care of it.” The coordinator spoke again.

“I can help you pack.” The coordinator continued. Suddenly I realized what was happening and called my friends right away. I started asking a bunch of questions. I was still sick, I had been attacked, the perpetrator was still in the building, I couldn’t just pack and leave!

My friends came with no delay asking questions as well. “She’s been sick and she needs to recover at home.” The coordinator repeated. “But… you want her to leave now?”

“She’s been sick…” Okay, okay… My friend told her I would stay with her and they could leave the apartment, but they didn’t move. “The guards are staying because she said she needs protection.” The coordinator muttered as she was exiting. “No! She doesn’t need your protection now! We are here and she’ll be okay!” My friends jumped like lionesses protecting their cubs.

They left, and being aware of how ill I was, my friends packed for me only stopping to ask what to trash and what to bring with me. They did all the work, and the next day I woke up in a nice bed at my friend’s apartment, still in shock.

It is said that if we were to help remove itself from the cocoon, the butterfly would not be strong enough to survive. It is the struggle that prepares the butterfly to become strong enough to fly.

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And When There’s a Real Emergency in China…

My friends and I shared such a great time that Saturday night. I had just met this couple two weeks ago and they had been living in Ningbo for only three!

We met at this beautiful Middle Eastern restaurant in Lao Waitan, ordered lamb, cheese bread, a few drinks. Later on our Colombian dance instructor arrived with his Chinese girlfriend. We were all so excited! We danced bachata, salsa, merengue, vallenato, champeta… Oh my gosh! I was in Paradise.

The Morning After

Around 6 a.m I woke up with horrible spasmodic stomach pain and diarrhea. I went back to bed hoping it was temporary, but “it ain’t!” Since I last got sick my questions about emergency procedures hadn’t been answered, I texted the officer in charge of health insurance and our coordinator in separate messages:

“I woke up with a lot of pain and diarrhea. What should I do in case of emergency?”

The officer responded plainly:

“No. 2 Hospital.”

“What’s the address?”

No response whatsoever, and no news from the coordinator either. I was bending over with every spasm when I remembered I still had Hospital 2 as my contact on WeChat. They sent me one of the assistance’s (a.k.a. bilingual person or VIP) card. I told her my symptoms and she asked me for my insurance card. Back to the school’s health insurance officer.

“You don’t have insurance card. You pay fully first and the school will cover your first 1,000 […] Contact your coordinator.”

“She hasn’t responded.”

Sounds familiar? It’s because it is!

The doctor’s assistance also said I should pay 500 yuan for consultation with cash, but I was in so much pain I couldn’t think how to make it to the school gate, wait for a taxi, get out of the taxi, withdraw the money… So I asked if I could pay through WeChat, which is what most people use for almost any transaction.

“If you can’t accept this, you can see the doctor by yourself.”

Wow, people! Is it the culture or is it the translation?

“Yes, I can pay with cash!”

Then she sends me two lines of happy face emojis…

The Ride to the Hospital

I messaged one of the teachers from the international school and his response was so different.

“Yes! Meet me by my car in ten minutes!”

He stopped at the ATM where I withdrew some money, though I almost fainted. We continued to the hospital, which was full so there was no parking. Despite himself, he dropped me at the hospital entrance. This is not like the United States where they put you in a wheelchair as soon as they see you. I had to painfully walk through the parking lot and find a seat by the information center where I called my VIP person.

“You see? It’s 9:10! Your appointment is at 9:30! I’m not there! You wait! Understand?”

Whatever, they just like to yell…

LingLing met me, introduced herself, and started walking. She was almost out of sight when I yelled, “Wait for me!” Then whispered, “I’m too sick to follow.” We went upstairs where she opened an office with a desk and a couch where I lied down almost immediately.

“You need fill out this form!” She said putting the form on the doctor’s desk and going back to her cell phone. I stood up and noticed the form was in Chinese, so she translated it for me.

“You have to pay 501 yuan, 1 yuan for hospital book.”

She offered me water, but then said to wait because the water was room temperature and that’s not good.

“You should drink hot water because you’re sick. Hot water is good for your body. Doctor will come in twenty minutes.” I lied down again while she watched videos on her cell phone… loudly.

The blood work

Suddenly LingLing stood up and told me to follow her.

“We need your blood.”

She walked fast, then stopped to wait for me, which she continued doing until we arrived to the lab. We stood behind a chair with a man who was getting his blood work done. When he left I gave a step to take his place when another man came running and sat as if I wasn’t even there. He rolled up his sleeve speaking very quickly, while I sat at another chair not believing my eyes. We went back to the office after the nurse filled up two little tubes with my blood.

The doctor came and asked if I’d had a fever, to what I answered, “I don’t think so.” So she didn’t take my temperature.

She touched my stomach pushing gently, “Ouch!” I said a couple of times.

“Okay. You need to go get an injection.” She said in Chinese while my VIP was interpreting simultaneously.

“Injection for what?” The  VIP’s voice interpreting could be heard as background noise.wp-1493123466122.jpg

“For pain. Go!”

We went to the third floor where LingLing told me to wait at an opened IV area. I was there minding my own business when a teenage girl came excited, sat next to me, and took a selfie with me in the background. Most people had cell phones and some of them were playing loud music or watching videos.

Pain Injection

My VIP took me to another room where a shirtless man was getting injected in one arm, then she told me to pull down my pants to get my injection.

“What? But that man is still here!”

She exchanged a few words in Chinese with the man who finished putting on his shirt quickly, but I was still looking at the open door which (noticing how uncomfortable I felt) LingLing closed.

We went back to the office where I lied down again. I was having a pleasant dream when my stomach woke me up.

“I need to go to the bathroom!”

LingLing walked me to the office door and pointed to the end of the aisle.

“Go there. You see the sign? Then turn right.”

Oh boy, why isn’t the bathroom next to the doctor’s office? I was walking as fast as I could  tightening hips and thighs all the 30 meters to the bathroom, opened the door and… there was no toilet paper!

When I turned around LingLing was standing by the door and for a second I thought she would have brought me some tissue.

“What happened?” She asked.

“There’s no toilet paper!” I said hoping maybe she’d get it for me.

“Oh, go to office. Doctor has.” Maybe my body language didn’t tell her I was about to stain my pants!

It took me a while to find the box of tissues because it wasn’t on the doctor’s desk. When I was leaving the office, LingLing was standing by the door! Why was she following me?

I returned to the restroom (all the toilets were squatters), I went down, relieved myself, and when I was pulling my pants back up the squatter flushed down automatically splashing my jeans with my own diarrhea. “Ugh…” I thought while I was walking to the sink to wash my hands, but there was no soap, so I only rinsed them, and when I reached for the paper towels… the box was empty. Luckily, I was carrying a little bottle of hand sanitizer which I almost emptied in my hands  to the surprised look of strangers (wait a minute, I am the stranger.)

Back at the office I fell asleep until the doctor woke me up.

“Your blood is okay. You have an intestinal inflammation caused by food that wasn’t properly cooked,” she said in perfect English!

“Take this, eat noodles or rice with little oil, and drink hot water with salt”

When she was about to leave I felt another couple of abdominal spasms, so I asked her why the pain wasn’t gone after the injection.

“Maybe you need a day to rest. I will write a note.” She left with the VIP.

LingLing came back with a bunch of fãpiào or receipts, the doctor’s note, and three small boxes.

“Take this okay? Here is the medicine, okay? Bye bye!”

“Wait! This is Chinese! How am I supposed to take it?”

“This one, one pill three times a day before a meal…” She started impatiently, and before I could ask her if she could write it down for me on a piece of paper she gave me a pen.

“Write on the box!”

I didn’t want to be obnoxious, but I needed her to help me find a taxi. We went downstairs, she wrote in Chinese what to tell the taxi driver.

“Taxis are outside, okay? I go home. Bye bye.”

C- for customer service.

I walked outside still in pain and saw no taxis. When I saw one, the couple that was walking behind me ran to grab it. Fortunately, there was another one coming right behind it. I showed the note to the taxi, he brought me home where I texted my friends that I was sick. They said they had been sick too, though not as bad as I was. I contacted the restaurant but they denied everything.

Two days later  I was still sick and I texted my doctor. Their answer:

“I am orthopedics, not intern, you can call VIP.”

Well, life in China is certainly very interesting.

Chongxi or the Wash of Misfortune

I’ve grown fond of China after seven months of living and working here. However, certain circumstances continue being a stone in the shoe.

A few days before the Chinese New Year holiday, I hurt my big toe during the rehearsals for the school celebration. Every step was so difficult during the 7 minute walk to the office and more so while teaching my classes.  This was the fourth day already. I left school to a hospital where I could be seen in private (I was tired of the “collective” consultations). A bilingual woman was waiting for me, she asked me what the issue was as I followed her to the doctor’s office. This was the first time I was going to be seen privately, and despite the pain, I had a feeling of wellness and relief.

“You Don’t Have Insurance”

The woman asked me for my insurance card.

“I don’t have an insurance card, but I have insurance through school.” I showed her all my other  documents: Passport, expert certificate, hospital book…asian-doctor

“You need an insurance card to be seen or you need to pay 400 yuan for the consultation.” I repeated my previous statement and added that she could look me up in the system, which she did, only to give me the bad news, “You don’t have insurance.”

Startled, I tried to convey an explanation that I myself could believe as well, but nothing coherent came out.

I texted our department coordinator and her answer just shocked me, “The insurance that is made available to teachers is for serious injuries, surgeries and conditions. If you are at the doctor and it is minor that is not covered.”

When I asked for an explanation she told me to talk to one the school’s officers. She works for the international school… and ours, the domestic. They were on vacation, but I could set an appointment with her a few weeks later.

The Foreign Affairs Officer

At the appointment the officer started, “Not because you’re friends with some people at this school that means you have the same insurance.” What? Where did that come from? I took a deep breath to prevent blurting out the answer I felt she deserved, then pulled out a copy of my contract, “Here it says the school provides health insurance, I went to the hospital and they told me I don’t have insurance, what’s the deal? I’m complying with my side of the contract, I feel that you’re not.”

She smiled in a condescending way, “It is different.”

“That’s what the coordinator said, that I can only use my insurance for emergences, but where do I go if I have an emergency? And who determines that? And, I don’t even own an insurance card!” I breathed again and pointed at the contract, “Plus, here it says, ‘Party A shall introduce to Party B the laws, decrees and relevant regulations enacted by the Chinese government,’ but nobody has explained anything to me!”

“Huh, I went to college in Europe and nobody explained the rules of the country to me!” She laughed superciliously and I was losing it. “I really don’t care about the ‘rules of the country’, I just need to know how the school works! And if the contract mentions ‘laws and decrees’ there must be a reason for it. You could have prevented a lot of stress for us foreigners who don’t know how the school operates by explaining this to us. Like, who’s my boss?”

“Your coordinator.”

“And, who’s her boss? You?”

“No, your coordinator’s boss is the school owner.”

“I need to speak with the school owner then.”

“You have to understand, she’s a very busy person.”

“I get it, but if I’m here for a year I’m sure she’ll have 5 minutes for me. How can I arrange an appointment? Can you show me where her office is?”

“I can talk to her to see when she can see you.”

“Perfect! And going back to my insurance. How does it work?”

She drew a horizontal line with the number 1,000. “When you spend up to 1,000 yuan out of pocket, the school gives you a refund. If you spend more than 1,000 we submit a claim to the insurance.”

Nevertheless, months ago our coordinator had said we had to spend 1,000 out of pocket before we were able to make an insurance claim.

“I haven’t spent 1,000 yuan yet, so I still can get the money back?”

“Yes, ask your coordinator to sign this form, bring it together with your receipts, and I’ll give you the money back.”

“Oh, great! Thanks! And when can I talk to the school owner?”

“I’ll let you know as soon as possible. And if you have any questions, just come to my office, I’ll be happy to help you.” Two months have passed. No news about the school owner despite my inquiries.

Back at the Office

wp-1489128211094.pngI asked the coordinator to sign the refund form. She seemed confused, “But, have you spent 1,000 yuan yet?”

“No, but I understand that if I bring my receipts I can get the money back.”

“That is only because you asked!” Whoa! I’m trying to practice not to lose face (stay put, not to lose respect) so I point at the document politely, “Will you sign here, please?”

“I have to ask.”

She makes a phone call, I hear my name, she hangs up.

“You’re not planning to go to the doctor anymore?”

“I don’t know, maybe.”

“They said they will save your receipts until you have reached 1,000 yuan, then they will file for a refund.”
“That’s okay. Could you sign here, please?”

I leave the signed form and receipts on the officer’s desk. Three hours later she shows up at our office with an envelope for me, “Here is your money.”

Maybe they didn’t want to lose face. However, why in the same day two people contradicted themselves about something so important as the health insurance? And why didn’t they tell us about it since the very beginning? I don’t get what losing face has to do with not following protocol. If the contract says they have to tell us the “laws and regulations”, why don’t they just do that?

The answer came to me when I was listening to the radio on the internet. This American Life Podcast 585 “In Defense of Ignorance” was talking about how Chinese doctors usually don’t give test results to the patients, but to their relatives, if it is bad news, the relatives decide either to tell them or not. And in honor of mental health… It’s better not to receive bad news. Chinese people think mental and physical health are deeply connected. On the radio, the Chinese lady told a joke, “One patient is healthy, the other patient is terminally ill. Their results are mixed up. The healthy patient gets the bad prognosis, and the sick patient gets the good results. A few weeks later, the healthy patient ends up dying while the sick patient ends up living a long life.” And let’s face it. If I hadn’t gotten sick and looked for private assistance I would have never known I didn’t have insurance and my thoughts towards administration, Chinese regulations, etc. wouldn’t have been affected. Instead, I had a headache, anxiety, became sicker, and resentful. They didn’t tell me about the lack of health insurance because they wanted me to work with them, and also “save face.”

I am also aware of chongxi or the Chinese believe that you can wash away a misfortune with joy. The coordinator never stopped smiling and giving me compliments despite of my long face, and the officer waves at me warmly when she sees me though she never responded to my messages about being able to see the boss. Nobody apologizes. People just go on, like a splice between before the dispute and the afterwards making the actual event vanish. No casualties.

School Schedule

wp-1487752948607.jpgLater that week, I was presented with another matter. I seriously believed I was done with the Chinese schedule and the “tentative” dates until they gave us the “tentative” schedule for second semester.  Because there are a few holidays we have to make up for the leisure time by working on weekends. Check it out. “Tentative” School Calendar 2017:

  • Week 7 Work on Saturday
  • April 2-4 Qingming Festival Holiday
  • Week 8 Work on Saturday and Sunday
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Chinese students walk into the entrance of university for Gaokao test (photo from the web)

  • April 11-16 Gaokao Holiday
  • April 29-May 1 International Labor Day Holiday
  • Week 15 Work on Saturday
  • May 28-30 Dragon Boat Festival Holiday
  • End of School Year July 1 – July 5 ? ? ? Which Day? We don’t know!
  • Summer Holiday ???

I’m not kidding! This is the “official” document for our “tentative” school schedule and they wrote these last two bullets like that (question marks and exclamation point included). And as I’m writing this they have already changed one of these dates, last minute.

The end of my contract is June 30, and as far as I’m concerned, I’ll be taking off soon after.

I hope I don’t lose my face by then… Or my mind!