The sensitive foreigner’s guide to staying healthy in China

Forward: I wrote this article many years ago, but was reminded of it by my recent trip to China, where I caught the flu twice — including having the interesting experience of getting in-home IV service. After all of these years, I am still a sensitive girl when it comes to getting ill in China. If you are too, you’ll enjoy this classic piece.


Have you ever had such a severe case of the flu that it took away your voice? Have you experienced months of annoyingly frequent respiratory infections? Did you ever have cases of…er…diarrhea so horrible that you had to leave the room mid-sentence? Do you yearn for the days in your home country, when you only got ill once or twice a year?

If you’re a foreigner in China, you just might understand this. Getting up close and personal with a lot of odd colds, flus, and…yes, diarrhea…is all part and parcel of committing yourself to living in China.

But, for some of us foreigners, China’s illnesses have a wrathful hold. Look into our gentle, tired eyes, and you’ll see the tell-tale signs of multitudinous trips to hospitals, pharmacies, and practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine. Look in our homes, and you’ll find several Chinese traditional remedies hiding in the refrigerator, and boxes of prepared cold medicines strewn about the sitting room.
However, I discovered that surviving China’s illnesses goes beyond mere medicines, treatments, or therapy. Surviving demands that you take a holistic approach to your body and lifestyle.

With this “holistic”, common sense approach in mind, I’ll share what I’ve learned from my experiences, plus all of that good motherly advice from my Chinese friends. [see disclaimer at bottom]

Upper Respiratory Infections (aka “ganmao”) and the flu

Drink hot water. Nothing is better for “ganmao” than LOTS of hot water. Are you drinking enough during the day?

Get fresh air in your home or at work. Open the windows to circulate the air in your home or office. Stale air is a breeding ground for “ganmao”!

Also, do NOT use air conditioning or heating while you’re sick. If you MUST use a heater at home, make sure it is one of those little portable units that blows out warmed up air (refengji), not hot air coming from your air conditioning unit.

Wear more clothes.
How many times have I heard Chinese tell me this? And how many times did I disregard their advice?

Keeping yourself warm is essential in China! Unless you’re in North China, heating is either pathetically cool or nonexistent. Officially heated cities are, generally speaking, those areas north of the Yangze River. Heat is officially turned on November 15, and shut off March 15. Also, you’ll find the heat efficiency go from “inferno” hot up in Heilongjiang to “whisper cool” at the Yangze’s border.

Being indoors doesn’t guarantee you’ll feel comfortable, especially in the winter. If you’re up North, you might be pining for the heat for weeks. And, if you’re down South, you must face the reality that there is no satisfyingly warm public space. Any visit to your office, your school, or the local restaurants demands wearing a jacket at all times. Think your home will be an oasis of warmth? Even in my apartment, leaving my bedroom is like stepping out into the sub-arctic.

To avoid giving your body frequent shock, wear layers of clothes at all times. Invest in some good pairs of long underwear for the winter. Make sure you’ve got a warm jacket…if not, you can pick up some fabulous down jackets almost everywhere in China.

Minimize exposing yourself to the cold in general. At home, if you must leave your toasty little oasis of a bedroom, throw on a robe or a jacket. Get dressed at army speed in the morning, and do it first thing when you get up. Avoid swimming in unheated pools or pools that don’t provide a warm atmosphere.

Exercise. This is a no-brainer…your poor, tired, foreigner’s body that sits in front of the computer all day is itching to go out and play!

Walking and bicycling are a good start. An intense walk or bike trip can bring out the “Mongolian warrior” in you!

However, if you’re not dreaming of trekking through the snow in the dead of winter, find yourself an invitingly warm indoor pool or modern gym. And, remember…play nice, now!

Sleep more. Ready, set…dream! You’re poor, tired out body is craving a good night’s rest. Indulge yourself! And, while China never seems to rest on the weekend mornings, forget about them and just sleep in!

Take vitamins. All right, so it’s not totally holistic…but it does wonders for your body.

Antioxidants are incredibly powerful against “ganmao” and the flu…I started taking them over a month ago and haven’t taken ill, as well as feeling more energetic and looking more vibrant. Make sure you’re getting a good shot of Vitamin C, E, and beta-carotene from your multivitamin.

Anyone in China can obtain good-quality vitamins at their local Amway (pronounced “Anli”) store or Watson’s, your personal store. Most large cities in China have one—ask your friends where to find Amway or Watson’s.

Otherwise, if you’re preparing to go to China, don’t forget those antioxidants!

Chronic diarrhea and indigestion

Eat at regular times. Often, diarrhea occurs when you jockey your mealtimes around too much. So, if you’re having dinner at 4:30 yesterday, 10 pm today, and 6:30 the next day, this means YOU.

Don’t fear! Just eat dinner at a “reasonable and convenient hour”, whenever that may be for you, and stick to it. Generally speaking, it’s best not to eat close to bedtime.

Eat easily digestible foods. Digestible foods? Isn’t all food digestible??

Well…some more than others.

Rice is a VERY easily digestible food (attested to by all of the rice infant foods available in China). Eat plenty of rice and rice porridge.

Plain noodles and mantou (steamed bread) are fine as well.

Be careful with Baozi (steamed dumplings). Baozi, in my experience, are generally a little unclean, and can irritate a delicate stomach.

Most vegetables are fine, especially if cooked. Beware, however. Any vegetable loses its digestibility when drowning in a puddle of oil.

When eating out, remind the waiters to go easy on the oil.

Tofu is excellent, and plentiful all over China. Softer varieties tend to be more digestible.

Non-acidic fruits are OK.

Go easy on the tea, but forget about the coffee! And, for that matter, give fruit juice a pass…it tends to be pretty acidic as well.

In general, avoid any of the following:
– Greasy or oily foods
– Fried foods
– Acidic foods

Drink ginger tea. Simple, effective, and SUPER-cheap.

Buy ginger root at any supermarket or open market. Slice up a small part, and boil the slices together with water. You’ll end up with a deliciously aromatic, light yellow tea your stomach will LOVE you for.

You can drink it at least once a day, or whenever you have indigestion.

Did I miss something here? No problem…for more information on well-being and holistic healing, check out Dr. Andrew Weil’s website. I visit regularly, and the best part–it’s free!

[Disclaimer: All of this advice is based on my experience living in China and dealing with common illnesses and health problems…think of it as the kind of advice your friends or parents would offer.

But, remember, I AM NOT A DOCTOR! Also, while this is all good advice, it may not always work ALL the time for everyone. Your situation is always different from my situation. If you have serious health problems, don’t hesitate to visit your friendly local hospital in China…promise?]

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2 thoughts on “The sensitive foreigner’s guide to staying healthy in China

  • October 24, 2009 at 5:14 am

    i lived in taiwan 7 years- the first 3 in the capital up north- taipei, and the last 4 down south near kaohsiung. when i first went to kaohsiung i got an awful illness that no western or chinese medicine would help. i had fever, cough, phelgm. i got it every 2 months for a total of 3 or 4 times. then i suppose my immunity had built up. several months later i got pregnant (married to a taiwan chinese man). even though i had been free from sickness for a few months, i was still nervous about getting so sick while being pregnant. so i made it a point to religiously wash my hands with soap and water every time i came in the house from the outside. either because i had built up immunity, the hand washing worked, or a combination, i had no problems with the pregnancy and never got sick during the pregnancy. so now in the good ol us with the swine flu scare upon us, and me being a teacher of germ-infested angels, i have a bottle of hand sanitizer in my car which i use every time i get in it. ps don’t over exercise- you’ll run down your immunity.

  • May 21, 2010 at 9:51 pm

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