In the years following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Homeland Security officials, when asked to assess the threat of another attack, often responded: “It’s not a matter of if, but when.”
The same can be said about food poisoning in Beijing. No Western diet can prepare a man’s stomach for the taste, smell and texture of authentic Chinese cuisine. Eat here long enough, and it’s only a matter of time until you’re staggering to the nearest toilet, puking yourself into a coma.
I didn’t get sick for the first eight months I lived in Beijing. It wasn’t because I didn’t take risks. I ate food I didn’t know existed (sea cucumber), bit a bird below the ankle (chicken feet) and tried without much luck to chew through undercooked bull intestines. Any part of an animal is fair game to the Chinese. “Are you going to eat that?” a co-worker once asked me over dinner, pointing with his chopsticks to the eyeball of a fish that had been picked to the bone.
I also tried as many different kinds of restaurants as I could. There’s a huge variety in the city, and with a little research you can find nearly any kind of ethnic food in the world. Beijing has around 60,000 restaurants, according to a local English-language magazine. Assuming you dined out three times a day, it would take about 55 years to try every restaurant in the city.
I had probably tried less than 100 by the time I sat down for dinner at a nondescript seafood restaurant for a meal of oysters and scallops. Cooked and coated in butter, they were delicious. As it has a tendency to do, the underdeveloped part of my brain that tells my hands to stop putting food into my mouth took the night off. Thirty oysters and a couple of cheap lagers later, I left and made a mental note of where the restaurant was located, hoping to come back.
When I got home, I ate a bowl of strawberries before bed. They didn’t stay down long. I woke up in the middle of the night with a crippling pain in my stomach. Hours of violent vomiting followed, the kind that pops the blood vessels in your eyes and makes you wish you lived next door to your mom.
I couldn’t eat the next day and spent most of it curled up on a couch, taking small sips from a Sprite bottle every few hours. A week passed, and I was still having trouble finishing a meal. I decided it was time to get help. I went to an international hospital near my apartment, where nurses and doctors are fluent in both Chinese and English.
“Why did it take so long for you to come to the hospital?” a nurse asked.
“I thought I would get better on my own.”
She muttered something in Chinese, put a check under functionally stupid and handed me a plastic cup to shit in. This was harder than it sounds, mainly because the cup was about the size of a thimble. And men, well, we’re only used to aiming standing up.
The test came back, and a doctor said I had gastroenteritis. Bacteria, from the oysters or the hands of the person cooking them, probably caused the infection, she said. She prescribed an antibiotic, and within a couple days I was back to normal.
A few days later, I called my mom, who is a nurse, and told her what happened. She scolded me for not going to the hospital sooner. “You could have been dehydrated. You could have needed an IV,” she said, ticking off a list of things that could have gone wrong.
“I know, I know.”
“You need to choose your food more wisely,” she said.
Simple, but great advice for an expat living in China.