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Beijing, MD

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Rumour has it that BBC journalists are offered a single piece of advice when they arrive to cover a story in India – eat everything because you’ll get sick anyway.  The same advice can be applied to those traveling through China.

My health has taken a few knocks in China. From the usual travelers stomach to kidney stones to God knows what I’ve had mixed in my drinks in Sanlitun. For the last few months, my insistence that I cook at home following the poisoned chopsticks, poisoned napkins and oil swill horror stories that surfaced over the summer has meant that I’ve had a pretty good 8 months so far.

Then I met a child and went down with that most feared of afflictions – a summer cold. My policy on kids has always been that they’re messy, stinky, horrible little creations that only their mothers could love – there’s far too many of them, we could do with a lot less, and I’m always in the minority  when it comes to discussing this precise point.  . My experience with Chinese kids has been to steer clear of them. Few of them have heard the word “no” in their short lifetimes, and almost all of them have little or no idea of what constitutes basic hygiene. In a country where I’ve had to tell a fully grown 24 year old man to please stop picking his nose in my class, this shouldn’t be too much of a shocker.

I admit that I am somewhat biased in the negative when it comes to the Chinese attitude towards what good parenting means. I’m one of those old fashioned types who thinks that a child should not be left with grandparents or the aiyi for 16 hours a day while the mother goes off to study English. Come to think of it, I’m rather biased towards anything medically traditional in China. I think it comes from the time when I was suffering from what could only be described as “epic diarrhea” after eating chuanr of dubious origin and was subsequently given TCM that I was told would take three or four days to take effect.

Deciding that in three or four days I would be lucky to have any bones left, I went to a better pharmacy and bought some proper medicine – I asked for loperamide at the pharmacy, the chemist muttered that she didn’t know if they had it, checked and returned with handfuls of loperamide based medications – only in China can you find a pharmacist who doesn’t know what medicines they have in stock.

Those of us who have lived here for a while know the appalling state of public health.  Despite being illegal, spitting (of the FA Premier League variety) borders on becoming a Chinese custom.  Public toilets have little in the way of soap, and the hospital toilet that I went to today in order to provide a sample for the erstwhile medical professional in charge of the gastroenterology department at the Sino-Japanese Friendship Hospital (which isn’t that friendly) had little in the way of running water.  On more than one occasion, I’ve seen people who in restaurants and coffeeshops enter a cubicle in a public convenience, and exit a few minutes later without washing their hands.  Grown men pick their noses, waitresses pick their feet in street restaurants and there is, what has been termed by the group of expats that I hang out with, a certain “brown smell” that lingers in the hutongs over the summer months.

It’s safe to say that public hygene is not a top priority for the Chinese.  People get sick with little regard as to why they get sick.  Public awareness of modern medicine is low, and people would rather spend money on cheaper traditional cures and folk remedies than go see a doctor.  That’s because most people don’t actually trust their doctors.  No one knows the difference between a viral and bacterial infection, and few people actually argue with their doctor when and if they think that their doctor is wrong.

It’s only when you get sick in China that the Twilight Zone sensation that you’ve learned to live with and sort of accept gets cranked up a notch. I was told during a particularly traumatic episode of diarrhea that I shouldn’t drink any water, I’m repeatedly told that drinking cold water during the summer (regularly pushing the mercury up to 35 degrees) is bad for my health – indeed, it’s even worse if you’re a woman for some unknown reason. Pregnant women shouldn’t drink icy drinks after giving birth (actually they shouldn’t shower, leave the bed or do anything that would raise their pulse about 60 beats a minute).  There’s no Casualty, or ER or even anything like The Flying Doctors on Chinese TV, and for expats the difference is palpable – no one knows anything.  If you don’t believe me, I’ll leave you with one final story –  to cure a bad hangover, I went into a pharmacy and asked for aspirin – I was  sold the morning after pill.

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