Maybe it sounds a little weird to think of making the most of a transition back to China. The goodbyes, 36+ hours of travel door-to-door, jet lag, and downward re-adjustment in comfort all make returning to your overseas home something to merely endure and survive, especially when young kids are involved. That’s still true for us. But we’ve also found there’s a great opportunity buried within each of our family’s sad and stressful biannual transitions back to the far side of the world.
Every second summer we spend two months visiting family and friends in Canada and the US (four states and one province). It’s great and we love it; lots of food and fun and camping and swimming with people we love and don’t get to see even close to near enough. But it’s not healthy in the sense that it’s a break from intentionally established daily routines that include sane sleep, eating, exercise, and relating. Plus, the leaving and the returning each have their own special stress.
Saying goodbye is one thing, but making your kids say goodbye to their grandparents at the international departures gate is just about the worst thing ever. It’s even worse than international travel with kids, which usually includes a long-haul flight followed by a layover followed by another flight that you barely make because your first flight was delayed (“Just hold it, OK?! Better wet pants on the plane than dry pants in the airport! Let’s move!”). Then there’s the step back down in convenience, cleanliness, and familiarity, plus all the stuff/dirt/bugs that has broken/accumulated/infested-and-died while you were away. We return to China physically and emotionally exhausted, out of shape, and relationally disoriented (for an extended period of time our kids haven’t had their usual amount of regular attention from us, and we haven’t had normal couple time, either).
It’s kind of funny: bracing for all that stress during our last two days with family in Canada is almost worse than actually going through it during the first week back in China. Sure, the first couple days of jet-lag and apartment cleaning/repair while trying to not take it out on your beyond-exhausted children aren’t awesome. But the level of discomfort I imagine each time never actually materializes, despite accurately predicting the general level of éº»çƒ¦ that awaits us. Each time, we slide back into our life here quicker and more smoothly than I expect us to.
And every return to China gives us an exciting opportunity that we plan for each time: the chance to intentionally alter our lifestyle for the better. Since our previously established routines and habits have been blown to smithereens by over two months of travel, it’s a prime chance to intentionally rearrange them as they start falling back into place, before they re-solidify. When your habits and routines have all been uprooted, it’s a chance to plant different ones.
Every time we come back to China, we end up living better than we had before. When we have about a week to go in North America we start thinking and talking about what we can improve, physically, psychologically, and relationally (I’d say “spiritually” but in my opinion it’s all spiritual one way or another), and keep adjusting it for the first few weeks we’re back.
Here’s some of the things we did this time, after returning to Qingdao a month ago on September 8ï¼š
Healthier eating: Mostly thanks to recommendations from my health-coach sister (not the product-pushing American-style health coach; the holistic, integrative kind), we tweaked our family’s diet, again.
Enhanced workout routine: I soaked up all the advice and info I could from my brother who’s a black belt in multiple martial arts and does judo and jujitsu training, and friends who do hardcore circuit training and strength training, and now my workout routine is more effective and time-saving.
Smarter family routines: Sometimes there really are engineering solutions to behaviour problems. Turns out you can avoid some common points of conflict just by adjusting meal/washing/clean up routines and staying on top of them. We talked it over from the vantage point of being outside our life here, and managed to identify and eliminate a couple of the kids’ daily opportunities for whining and noncompliance.
Smarter Chinese study routine: One way to get out of a study rut is to not study for two months. The last routine got me through the HSK5, but it didn’t feel good. I’m not going back to what I was doing, and instead have started a simple, doable, but more effective study routine that targets my weaker language areas and begins preparing me for the HSK6.
Long-neglected home repairs: For a very brief period of time after leaving the cleanliness and convenience of Canada, my tolerance levels are lower, and that means stuff gets fixed (gotta strike while the iron is hot, you know?), like the water barrier on our bathroom floor that keeps the shower water in the shower, the smoke fan in the kitchen, and the exhaust fan in the bathroom. I also thoroughly cleaned the DIY air purifiers, vacuumed, mopped and dusted the whole apartment and cleaned all the mold that had grown over the summer. And replaced all the dead houseplants with better ones. This would never happen in Month 2.
Healthier personal practices: I had personal practices before — what people usually call ‘spiritual’ practices — and those continue. But now I’ve also begun other ones. These are the kinds of things that intentionally set the direction and shape you’re going to grow in — the kind of person you’re going to become. Time will tell how far I’m able to grow into them. (Step 1 in becoming legit spiritual is Get Enough Sleep. We have an infant. I’m working on it…). But being captivated by a liberating, positive, all-encompassing vision is unlike anything else, even when Kid #3 is making you tired. (I’m happy to share details. Spoiler: Jesus.)
The end result is: our life is on a slightly better trajectory now than it was before we left for the summer. And it was the same deal after we returned from the summer two years ago. It makes us excited for where the next few semester will take us.
Our About page says we’re “trying to live into and love — and some days just survive — China.” That last bit is just supposed to be some tongue-in-cheek hyperbole, but it recently became a little too literal.
For reasons that no doubt expose my questionable judgment, I tried to use the nearby local Chinese hospital in our un-redeveloped patch of an older outlying district of a wannabe 2nd-tier Chinese city, rather than the big downtown hospital that sometimes has Western-trained doctors in a clinic specially targeted to foreigners. I mean, how complicated could it be to get treatment for a persistent cough? What could go wrong, you know? As it turns out… a few things.
* * * * *
Why Not Choose a Local Chinese Hospital?
Of course we’ve seen the headlines and heard the stories about Chinese hospital corruption and low standards. But we’ve had two tolerable experiences at this particular hospital before: once when our two-year-old had bad pneumonia she got prescribed oral antibiotics and breathing machine meds (when we resisted hospitalization), and recently when the same kid had diarrhea she got prescribed ‘normal’ diarrhea medicine plus Chinese herbal belly button plugs (just for kicks).
I figured it’d be more convenient (wrong) and less expensive (also wrong) to visit a Chinese doctor I could walk to and pay 6å…ƒ to see rather than visit a maybe-Western-trained sort-of English-speaking Chinese doctor who costs 100å…ƒ to see plus 70å…ƒ in taxi money round-trip. And just the fact that I knew I could navigate a Chinese hospital visit on my own kind of made me want to give it a shot.
* * * * *
How to Get From the Front Doors to a Filled Prescription… in 11 Easy Steps (at least)
The Number â€œ4â€ People’s Hospital is pretty average; you can find better and you can find worse (it wasn’t actually the Number “4”; I’m obscuring that detail to protect the possibly-guilty and because “4” means “die” in Chinese).
from walking in the door and taking a number (<5min)
to paying, getting a card, and registering to see a doctor (15min)
to seeing a doctor (15min)
to paying for tests (15min)
to getting tests done (45min)
to picking up the test results (30min for blood; 4hrs for CT printout — but the doctor has them almost instantly via the hospital’s computer network)
to seeing the doctor again for a diagnosis and prescription (15min if you spend time arguing like me)
to getting the skin test done to check for allergies to the prescribed meds (20min)
to paying for those meds (15min)
to receiving your meds (5min)
to getting your IV drip prepared and inserted into your circulatory system (IV drips are a national pastime in China) (15min)
…can appear daunting at first. Each one of the points above represents a trip to a different window and/or office and/or machine, and most of them involve standing in crowded noisy lines of other sick people. (The times above are what it took for me the other day.)
Honestly, Number “4” People’s was decently navigable; at any point in the process you can ask a nurse at the booth by the main entrance and she’ll tell you what to do. To get your test results you insert your hospital card into an ATM-like machine (your name displays on a screen when they’re ready to print), but the doctor had my results on her computer before Iâ€™d made it back to her office from the testing room.
But you should probably bring a Chinese friend if:
You’re too sick to stand for a while in the crowded heat and yell through glass windows and run around a bit;
You don’t have at bare-minimum solid HSK4-level Chinese (this might not be enough). Aside from the all the medical vocabulary, it’s just noisy and hard to hear clearly.
* * * * *
How Not to Handle Your Average Local Chinese Doctor
Iâ€™d walked in at 9:30am and ping-ponged through Steps 1-6 by 11:10. Now I’m back in the doctor’s office (Step 7)… and this is when things start to go bad.
I’m not saying ‘bad’ because there’s no privacy with the door wide open and other people in the room, one of whom will eventually chime in on my consultation — that’s normal and expected. I’m saying ‘bad’ because she looks at my CT scan and says: “You need to be admitted for 7-10 days and take IV antibiotics.”
“Can’t I just take antibiotics pills? I’ve never needed an IV before. Usually we just take pills for this.”
“You’re pneumonia is too serious for pills. You need to be admitted. Look here…” She shows me her screen:
“…That’s your heart. That black part is your lungs. It’s supposed to be all black. See all this? This here that looks like meat? That’s the pneumonia.”
This is not what I want to hear. As if I know how to judge the seriousness of a CT scan. And sure, I know the Chinese doctor stereotypes — over-treat everything (especially with IVs and unnecessary hospitalization and surgery) just to make extra sure, and never mind a financial incentive to over-prescribe — but I mean, come on. Really?
There’s no way I’m being admitted; we leave for North America in just over two weeks, we have a newborn and two young kids at home, and I have work to do. So I’m still aiming for pills while trying not to be too rude: “I can’t be admitted; that’s impossible. Can we really not use pills in this situation?”
“I really don’t want to give you oral antibiotics,” she says while flipping through my CT images, “Not for pneumonia that’s this serious.”
I haven’t given up yet, “Well, what’s the difference between me taking pills or an IV? Is it just that pills will take longer? Because I don’t mind! I can take pills for weeks if I need to!”
“Your pneumonia is really too serious. You’ve got to be on an IV…” She will not budge. After some more back and forth — during which I wish now that I’d just flat-out refused and forced her to give me pills — I agree to come sit in the hospital’s Infusion Hall twice a day for four hours at a time for three days, after which she’ll maybe consider giving me pills depending on my progress. We also go back and forth about whether I can just do the IVs in our neighbourhood’s clinic, but she refuses. I have to come into their hospital twice a day for four hours at a time.
It’s insane; I can’t believe I’m agreeing to it but my only other option is hospitalization, and by this point I’m feeling pretty sick.
I want to walk out and catch a cab straight to the foreigner clinic at Qingdao Municipal or even to super-expensive Family United — anywhere a doctor will prescribe oral antibiotics. But here’s the catch: it’s the beginning of the Dragon Boat Festival national long weekend. Jessica’s already called both those other hospitals and neither has an American-trained doctor available. At Family United I’d have to go to Emergency, so with tests we’re talking 10,000å…ƒ (their nurse’s estimate!) and I’d still be seeing a locally trained Chinese doctor!
* * * * *
From the Infusion Hall to the ERâ€¦ in under 10min
So that’s why I show up again at 3:30 to collect my CT printout and go on a drip for the first time in my life (though we did sell plenty of our plasma in college; I’ve got lots of experience sitting in a chair for hours with a needle in my arm).
It takes more time to get from Step 8 to Step 11 than I’d anticipated (plus I wasted about 15min standing in line at the wrong time). I send Jessica this photo at 4:28. The drip’s been in for about a minute:
I’ve got my laptop so I can do some work, and my Chinese reading’s loaded on my phone. Neither has enough battery to last the full four hours, even used consecutively. I’ve forgotten my book. So far I’ve been polite to everyone and kept my face pleasant, but I’m in a foul mood. I can’t believe I’m going along with this. I’m about to start in on my Chinese reading when…
…huh. does my stomach feel weird? i don’t think so… maybe i’m imagining it? or does it? it’s hard to tell… … wait, no, it does feel a little weird, maybe i’m hungry… … wait, are my fingers tingling? the heck…? my fingers are tingling… … oh man i need to rest my head somewhere…
“Hey, nurse! Please come here.”
“I feel uncomfortable.”
“Oh! Haha. I don’t know. Hold on… Hey! Older Sister! Come here!” I see her wave down a nurse who looks slightly older than this rookie, who’s in the middle of a funny conversation with a coworker. They all get off work in about 20 minutes.
…am i sweating? i’m sweating… why am i sweating…
“What’s the problem?”
“I feel really uncomfortable,” I’m slumped forward in the chair, I wonder if I’m slurring.
“Here eat this.” She shoves a piece of candy in my mouth. I crunch it down as fast as I can. One of them pushes me back up into a sitting position.
…candy? the heck… oh man this is not getting better… i’m sweating buckets… i must be dripping on the floor… i’m dripping… ohhh black stars… white stars… am i gonna barf? …if i barf where should i barf? …not on my clothes… clear a space on the floor hereâ€¦
Suddenly there are doctors — two, I think. They’re talking to the nurses. One looks straight at me and says, “What’s your name?”
“My name is Lu Tianlang.” …fuzzy black stars on the edges of my vision… and blinding bright whiteness like the washed-out parts of a photo…
His face is right in front of me, “Have you eaten? Did you have lunch?”
He turns to the others, “It’s definitely not low blood sugar.”
…slumped… sweat… tingling… i can’t see clearly… a face, question…
“What is your name?” All I can see is his face and collar; all around and behind him are the bright white shining stars. I try to focus on his face.
“My name is Lu Tianlang.” …pretty sure i slurred that one…
An old man wheels a gurney up, they help me climb on — I’m oddly aware of the fact that I remember to grab my phone first — someone puts the laptop between my shins, they’re wheeling me down the hall. I think I hear them say the word ç³– in reference to whatever IV solution they used to swap out my medicine (guessing it’s this). I can feel the stars and tingling start to recede, and I tell them I’m starting to feel better. The doctors seem happy; they try out some English on me.
In the neighbouring building’s ER they take blood pressure and do an EKG. I watch the doctor read the printout. He smiles, gives me a thumbs up, says I’m fine and leaves. I flag down a nurse who says I can go as soon as my drip bag is done in about 45 minutes. I’d better think of something to tell Jessica…
* * * * *
Outside the main entrance I thankfully get a cab immediately. The driver’s 60 years old. We chat. I mention whatâ€™s just happened. He takes a sideways look back in the direction of Number “4” People’s and mutters, “That place is no good. They don’t know what they’re doing in there. I don’t go there. They don’t know what they’re doing…” Then he lectures me about the importance of being healthy.
I’m feeling crappy and slightly scared. I have no medicine and tomorrow I’ll have to try another hospital. But I’ve got all kinds of warm feelings for this taxi shifu. It’s like ‘China’ decided to throw me a bone after all, even on a Bad China Day.
* * * * *
1:30pm the next day is the soonest I can get to see a foreign-trained doctor — a “Dr. Qi” who works at the Municipal Hospital’s International Clinic. I imagine the consultation being mostly in Chinese, like the previous two times Iâ€™d seen doctors at that clinic.
But then he walks in and starts speaking *American.*
What?! â€¦JACKPOT!!! MY NIGHTMARE IS OVER AND I’M GETTING PILLS!!! I COULD KISS THIS GUY RIGHT NOW! (Except for, you know, the pneumonia.) I wonder if the shock showed on my face.
I suspect he gets this reaction a lot. Another China long-termer in Qingdao told me later,
“I cried the first time I went in to see Dr. Chee. I couldn’t believe I was doing it in English and I just lost it right there in his office!”
I can understand that!
Turns out his name’s not even Qi (Mainland Chinese spelling for the surname ç¶¦) like I’d assumed from hearing it spoken; it’s Chee (for æœ±), as in his family probably originally immigrated from Hong Kong or somewhere (mine originally came from the Ukraine and Switzerland — hey, small world!).
This doctor visit is a full-on miracle of modern medical science. Heâ€™s better than a lot of doctors Iâ€™ve seen in North America, and I’m not just saying that because he prescribed me oral antibiotics that are literally 5x cheaper than the IV meds I’d bought the day before. If you are a sick English-speaking foreigner in Qingdao,Dr. Chee at the Qingdao Municipal Hospital’s International Clinic is your man!
* * * * *
One Final Awkward
But there’s one last task to do on the way home: get that nearly 600å…ƒ worth of IV antibiotics refunded. This requires authorization from the doctor who prescribed them. So I’m going to walk into her office at Number â€œ4â€ People’s with some other hospital’s blood test gauze taped to my arm and a bag of pills that she wouldn’t give me but some other doctor obviously has, and ask her to refund two huge bags of stuff she insisted I buy even though I’d said I didn’t want to, and even though submitting to her treatment had landed me in the ER. Awkward.
I walk straight up to her office just after 4pm without taking a number (she gets off at 5). I’m polite and smiley; she’s chatty, if a bit flustered and rushed. She’s assumed I’m there to return the drugs and immediately gets after it. I can’t describe the process because she personally does all the running around between floors and departments and windows for me — I just follow her and stand off to the side.
We talk all about what happened 24 hours before, and she keeps saying, “It’s really strange!” over and over. She doesn’t verbally apologize, and we don’t even come close to broaching the subject of, “So what do I do now?” Apparently it’s an unspoken understanding that I’ve found another doctor, or at least that I won’t continue with her. She’s super accommodating, and at 4:30 hands me my partial refund, says a hurried goodbye and rushes into the elevator with someone.
Was it an unspoken apology? Was she afraid I’d make trouble? Collusion between the pharmaceutical and medical industries is rampant in China, and her prescription cost 5x more than what the American doctor at a more prestigious downtown hospital prescribed. Was she afraid of being accused of something? I can’t know, but it’s all possible.
And no joke: they refunded me 444.64å…ƒ (of 581): “Die, die, die, unimpededly die.” That’s gotta be the most inauspicious Chinese hospital receipt ever.
* * * * *
That evening I thanked her on Weixin for helping me return the drugs; I just wanted to say goodbye and close things out. She replied with a written apology and a 100å…ƒ hongbao:
Not at all, I still feel apologetic. It was Bangda [a particular drug], and you did a skin test, so I thought it over, not excluding being too nervous or low blood sugar. But no, how about you first take oral antibiotics and see. I’m really embarrassed, I hope you’ll understand! Here’s a hongbao to express my apology!
I asked several different Chinese friends how to respond to that: Should I take the hongbao? Not take the hongbao? What should I say? I replied with what one of them told me to say, and tried to return a portion of the hongbao like another suggested (she didn’t take it):
It didn’t cause a health problem, so it’s fine, medical science isn’t perfect, anyone can make mistakes, let’s just consider it my contribution to the accumulating experience of medical science.
How often does that happen in China? A doctor giving a patient a hongbao? Itâ€™s usually the other way around. Here’s the anti-bribery sign from the front desk at the international clinic in the downtown hospital: Now that I think of it, I didn’t see any of these signs at Number â€œ4â€ Peopleâ€™s. Maybe that should have been a clue! (Hereâ€™s another one from a previous medical adventure in Huangdao.)
Diagnosing & Prescribing for Pneumonia
Qingdao Number “4” People’s Hospital:
Meds + IV fees: 597å…ƒ (and pressure to accept hospitalization!)
If you’re a foreign family in Qingdao, it’s understandable if the thought of spending a summer day at the beach makes you twitch. I mean, come on, it’s July in Qingdao; who’s gonna march their little yangwawas through the middle of this?
Your kids already get more than enough attention on a normal day from the relatively cosmopolitan, local Qingdao urbanites. But throwing them into the middle of a beach that’s packed with domestic tourists like a boiling pot of jiaozi ? That’s just cruel and unusual. And that’s why we know long-term, well-enculturated, fluent-in-Chinese families here who simply don’t do the beach at all.
But when it comes to our family, we’re a little more desperate. Not swimming outdoors in the summer would be… we might as well all be in summer school. So we’ve tried numerous things over the last four years, attempting to make the beach worthwhile. And I think we’ve pretty much got it down. Behold! This is us, on the beach in Qingdao, in July:
Where are all the people? Why isn’t there a ring of photographers around your little blond, curly-haired children? How is it that I can see where the sand ends and the water begins? Over the last few years we’ve distilled a few tricks, like our particular place and times, and the result is that photo (four of those seven bodies are us). We do this nearly every Saturday in not-cold weather from June to September.
A “successful” beach day for us isn’t perfect, of course. On the day that photo was taken I had to politely turn away two requests for photos with our kids, and passive-aggressively angle-out photo attempts from two other people. Drawing a circle around our tent and sandcastle works as an effective barrier on about 95% of the people who pause to look, meaning only one person all day stepped over it to try and get their kid to stand next to ours for a photo (this is pretty much always a domestic tourist from an inland village or small town, where social norms are different). Most passersby don’t stop to look, but those who do merely stand outside the circle for a moment before moving on. An ATV drove up once to check us out. But that’s all in 5+ hours at the beach, which imo is a very reasonable amount of attention to tolerate as a foreign family in a wannabe 2nd-tier Chinese city.
You can see less-successful beach attempts from summers past here: