Chinese Medicine

On Friday I went to a Chinese doctor to seek a cure for the early morning coughing and sneezing that keep me awake. Asthma and lung problems are fairly common here, and I figured local doctors must see such cases often. My boss recommended a hospital in town; his girlfriend was also waking up in the early morning coughing and the doctor gave her something to calm her coughing and help her sleep. My friend and coworker Jessie, who is Chinese, agreed to go with me to translate.

We took a taxi to the hospital on a sweltering day, with a heat index well over 100 degrees. The hospital is on a busy street, tucked behind a row of ramshackle stores.

Now I suppose I had a somewhat romanticized view of the Chinese hospital as a dim, calm shop with rows of tiny glass bottles containing exotic herbs in tinctures and powders.

What I found was, of course, rather different. The large, multi-level building looked like a dilapidated bank, with expanses of cracked, dingy marble and a row of teller windows. Elderly people shuffled back and forth across the wide, empty center space, while the more unfortunate sprawled out on stretchers under the florid sculpted awnings or huddled into rows of plastic chairs. It reminded me of TV news images of high school gymnasiums, stadiums, and other public venues turned into makeshift hospitals after a disaster.

Despite their depressed circumstances, nurses and receptionists wore smart, white uniforms with old-fashioned nurses' caps pinned above neat hairdos. No one spoke English, but Jessie helped me navigate through several stations as I got a medical ID/membership card and checked in to see the doctor, whose consulting room was one of dozens of small, numbered cubicles on the third floor.

The doctor was competent and friendly, with a warm, earnest bearing and obvious personal dignity. He spoke English rather well, though with a heavy accent. (I spent several moments wondering over his injunction to "monitor my lan feng xian" before I realized he was saying "lung function.") The doctor suspected I might have only a cold that's been hanging on for many weeks, but he also wants to make sure I don't develop asthma, since my mother's is quite severe. He gave me several medications (pills, not teas) and asked me to return in six days to check for improvement in my lungs.

(Incidentally, my more romantic notions are not entirely unfounded - many pharmacies here do sell exotic plant and animal parts alongside antibiotics and other "western" drugs.)