Chinese Hospitals, Redux
Okay, so my vast and sincere apologies for being so negligent this past week. I know some of you check compulsively to see if I’ve updated (i.e. that I’m still alive) and I apologize to those of you who are office-mates of said compulsive checkers for making them cranky. I owe you all tales of tall, shiny buildings; of short but thrilling ocean passages; of travolaters and How I Thought I Was In NYC (Or Possibly San Francisco) For Most Of Last Week. I promise to write about Hong Kong and all its majesty next post.
I do have a good excuse, though– both for my negligence and also for doing this post first.
You see, I’ve been quite ill of late. Nothing too serious, so don’t put your worry hats on. Just a touch of tonsillitis/ear infection/wracking cough. Or, as certain Hong Kongers like to call it, Southern China Throat. I now have the pollution anecdote to beat all pollution anecdotes: “Oh, you think your city’s air is polluted? Well, in Shenzhen I got tonsillitis just from breathing.” Ooh yeah.
So anyway, I’ve been a bit under the weather this week, and haven’t had much energy for anything but sitting still and trying not to swallow. Of course, I’ve still been going to work, and my fellow teachers noticed that I was looking a bit peaked, so first I was sent off to go see the school nurse, who basically said, “Yep. You need to go to the hospital. But here, have some antibiotics, you stubborn foreigner.” Because of course, I thought, I’ll just wait and see if it gets better. That was, after all, only Day 3 of this whole adventure.
Well, by Day 6, it still felt like I’d swallowed a pin cushion, so my contact teacher, Wallace (the bilingual Chinese teacher at the school who gets paid big bucks to take care of the waijiao) walked into my office to check up on me, took one look at me, and said, “Ok, we will go to the clinic this afternoon.” I pretty much did not have a choice.
Now, remember how I told you all about the efficiency of Chinese hospitals when we had our medical examination scavenger hunt?
Well, the efficiency hasn’t changed. I was in and out of the Nanshan Hospital in less than an hour, after an exam that consisted of the doctor (who spoke just enough English that we could communicate) using a tongue depressor to look down my throat, giving a cursory listen to my lungs, and asking if I was taking any medications. He was slightly surprised when I shook out my bag and showed him the arsenal of sudafed, Tylenol, Advil, and cefalexin that I had been experimenting with over the previous few days. He was particularly intrigued by the Advil, because I don’t think Ibuprofen is really very popular here. Usually (as I discovered) you can find paracetemol (which is basically acetaminophen, aka Tylenol) in the drugstores here, but Ibuprofen is not widely used. He told me to quit taking everything else, asked if I would be willing to try some Chinese medicines (to which I responded, “Absolutely. Bring it on.”) and wrote me a prescription for a few different things. Then I was sent on my way. This whole examination took roughly 10 minutes.
I tripped obligingly down the hall to the pharmacy. The way the hospitals here work is you pay a registration fee, about Y7 ($1 US) and then if you are given a prescription, you pay for that at the same time you pay for your exam and before you pick up the actual medication. The cost of three medications and an exam was Y70– about $10 US.Then you get a little prescription ticket which you take over to the pharmacy girl in the window across the room, and she doles out your medications in a little plastic baggie and sends you on your way. Again, in and out in less than an hour.
So then comes the fun part: figuring out exactly what the doctor has, in fact, ordered.
I carted home my bag of prizes, and before putting any of them into my mouth, attempted to ascertain what, precisely, each one was. This turned into a little adventure, requiring the aid of a Chinese dictionary, a character-search tool on my iPod which allows hand-written input, and the wonders of the Google search engine. It took some doing, but I did manage to puzzle it out.
The first and most official-looking package turned out to be erythromycin antibiotics. It was actually reassuringly easy to read this one, requiring only the aid of the dictionary. The dosages were also written plainly on the packaging, so I went about the next two with happy abandon.
Until I started reading the second package, and found myself staring at what was translating to “grape/licorice glycerin elixir to the right of methadone.” Huh. Wasn’t totally sure I necessarily wanted to ingest that particular combination of verbiage, let alone the substance which it described. Trusty Google, however, came to my rescue, and after a little bit of searching I found the website of the company which produces this particular thing, and discovered to actually be dextromethorphan guaifenisen syrup– essentially, Robitussin. Hooray! Cough expectorant! Something I recognize….
The last one still has me giggling, though. This is one of those traditional Chinese medicines, and the characters on the packaging read, “Compound of fish-and-prawn-smelling vegetable medicine kernels.”
Needless to say, some hilarity followed.
I now actually know what this means, though it took me a few days to figure it out. After doing a little detective work, and talking to a new Chinese friend (I’ll have to write about her in a minute), I discovered exactly what kind of vegetable matter it is: Houttuynia cordata, which is a plant native to Southeast Asia and prized for its efficacy in fighting respiratory ailments. The plant is actually called “fish-smelling herb” in Chinese, which explains the truly bizarre name on the medicine package. Notably, Houttuynia compounds were used extensively in fighting the SARS outbreak which began in Guangdong province (that would be here) in 2002. The medicine itself comes in little packages filled with small brown kernels, which look and smell pretty much exactly like fish food. However, the taste is not unlike brown sugar, and once added to hot water, is actually a surprisingly pleasant experience.
This Chinese friend, incidentally, is one I made recently through my adventures in the music department. She’s a piano teacher here at the school and she’s fairly young, somewhat close to my age; maybe a few years older. She speaks about as much English as I do Chinese (which is to say, not very much) but we connected over piano music and we’re having fun trying to learn to communicate with each other. She’s a dear, too– she lives in the same building that I do, and when she heard that I wasn’t feeling well, she came padding down the hall to see what was going on. With her help I figured out the veggie kernels business, and she also told me about a traditional Chinese remedy which seemed to involve pears, rock sugar, and some kind of mushroom. She promised to return the next day with the ingredients to show me how to make it.
She showed up with a crock pot, and, sure enough, a bag full of white pears, rock sugar, and some weird white fungus. She couldn’t really explain what it was, but she wrote the name of it down for me so I could do my own investigating. It’s called silver-ear fungus, and it’s a white lacy-looking thing which is used in Chinese cuisine, traditionally in sweet applications because it doesn’t really have any flavor– mostly it’s a textural component. It’s sold dried, but becomes very gelatinous when exposed to water. Odd, but actually kind of good, especially if, like me, you enjoy a good bubble tea with the tapioca pearls. Anyway, it’s supposed to have some excellent medicinal properties as well, so my friend showed me how to make this concoction and offered to loan me her crockpot for a few days so I could keep making it, until I feel better. What a sweetheart. I guess in China, your friends don’t bring you chicken soup– they bring you gelatinous-fungus-pear-sugar stuff.
Anyway, I seem to be somewhat on the mend now, which is good because I’m slated to head out to a place called Guilin for National Week vacation on Friday. I also promise to return soon to discuss Hong Kong, but for now I have some fish-scented-herb tea to drink. Over and out.