Before moving to China in 2010, I had always been a model of good health. Not overweight. Perfect blood pressure. I drank beer and rarely met a pizza I didn’t fall for, but almost always balanced it out with exercise and more than enough sleep.
Something changed in Beijing. Exactly what, I still can’t put my finger on. Dishes here tend to be on the oily and salty side. The air, water and streets are dirty. That can’t help. And I work nights – 5 to 12 most evenings – whereas most of my jobs in the U.S. were day shifts.
Whatever the cause, my body’s changed. My blood pressure runs high, and because of that I feel anxious. I find it harder to relax, and I spend more time worrying about what could be wrong with me instead of thinking about what to cook for dinner or what to buy my girlfriend for her birthday.
To rule out any serious medical problems, my family doctor in the U.S. recommended I have a CT scan of my chest and stomach. He made the suggestion in October while I was in Kentucky visiting family.
I have health insurance through my employer in Beijing, but it doesn’t cover procedures performed outside China. The CT scan, even after a discount (my mom knows the doctor), was going to cost $7,000 in the U.S.
I opted to have it done in China, and last week I went to the Sino-Japanese Friendship Hospital for a stomach and chest CT scan. If you’ve never been to a Chinese hospital, you should know that they’re quite a bit different from Western hospitals.
The Sino-Japanese Hospital has an international wing, but it’s international only in name. All of the doctors are Chinese, and their proficiency in English varies from poor to OK. Consultations and medical treatment are conducted only after you pay for them first. Just to speak with a doctor usually costs around 200 yuan ($32).
After I paid the 4,000 yuan for the CT scans (less than a tenth of what it would have cost in the U.S.), a nurse led me to a small room, where around 50 people were standing around doors marked CT 1, 2 and 3. They included a man on a stretcher slipping in and out of consciousness, an elderly woman having difficulty breathing and several men using canes to stand.
I expected those in good health to yield to the sick, but they instead used their mobility to fight for position. Whenever a door to one of the CT rooms would open, the person closest to it would dart inside and usually re-emerge a few seconds later, after he had been kicked out for cutting line.
The scan itself took only a few minutes. Afterward, as I waited to check out, a middle-aged woman asked me in Chinese if she could take my picture. For all she knew, I could have been a cancer patient with a few weeks to live. Still, I did what I always do when a Chinese person wants a photo of me and put on my best fake smile.
After taking two shots with her cell phone camera, the woman put her arm on my shoulder and asked a bystander to take our picture.
Now, China opened up to the world more than 30 years ago, but there are still times when the sight of a foreigner creates a stir. I’m used to it now – the staring, the whispering to other Chinese (“look, a foreigner!”), the requests for a picture.
As the cell phone clicked, I couldn’t help thinking I was at the Forbidden City or the Summer Palace.