Chapter 72: Private Parts in China

Jeans zippered down
When I need a doctor to look at my private parts in China, I am reminded just how elusive privacy really is.

To a foreigner, the most precious resource in China might just be privacy. If you start out as an English teacher, like I did, you learn to roll with untimely knocks at your door, appearing before your students in pajamas, or well-intentioned Chinese forcing medicine after medicine on your poor weary foreign self that you wouldn’t even let your best friend see. Some moments and circumstances demand a privacy that China just can’t give us.

I desperately needed privacy this one weekend in early August when I sought help for what every woman likes to refer to as her “female problems.”

Chinese hospitals work like this. You go to the information/check-in desk at the front, usually mobbed by people, and shove yourself in as you announce your symptoms, in front of everyone there. Easy enough if you have a cough or headache. But what do you do when it’s a little more, well, personal?

“I need to see the gynecological department,” I told them. Surely, this was the perfect solution — by naming the department, the nurse would know I needed a little help under the hood, and get me registered to see a doctor.

Except, the nurse — a rather bored woman dressed in pink and white — wanted more, even as the crowd surged around me. “What are your symptoms?”

“You know, it’s a little private,” I frowned. Wouldn’t she get it? Wouldn’t she understand that no woman would ever want to announce her female problems to the world?

Apparently not. “Well, if you can’t tell me, I can’t help you.”

With that, I left — hoping to try my luck at another hospital. The gatekeeper nurse wouldn’t let me in, once again, until I let my problem out. At another hospital, I discovered they don’t do gynecology on the weekends (isn’t that like saying “we don’t do windows on Tuesday?”).

Privacy or no, I had to see someone. So, I returned to that first hospital, doing what I should have done in the first place. I pulled the nurse aside, and whispered my symptoms into her ear.

I made it in, all right. And while privacy was a problem coming in, I can assure you of one thing — I had complete privacy when I saw the doctor.

How has privacy (or lack of it) surprised you in China?


Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, you can start at Chapter 1, or browse the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.

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16 Replies to “Chapter 72: Private Parts in China”

  1. I had severe food poisoning and was in the ER, surrounded by about 4 doctors and 20 other patients, all milling around the cot I was lying groaning on. They decided to give me a shot for the pain, and of course it had to go in the butt. I was in so much pain by that point that I didn’t even care, I just rolled over and everybody got an eyeful of white girl butt.
    .-= Nicki´s last blog ..Twisting tongues =-.

  2. Chinese toilets can sometimes lack a lot of privacy. Maybe there’s no door or the walls are only one meter high. Surely this doesn’t happen in good restaurants or shopping malls but if you visit the railway station or smaller city then better to get used to it. Luckily no one haven’t stared at me while doing the business, but I’ve heard that happened to a white girl too.

    My Chinese tutor also didn’t right away knew what the word privacy means so I had to explain it a little bit before he remembered the word!
    .-= EuropeanGirl´s last blog ..Can you be too honest? =-.

  3. In my office the doors to the men’s and women’s restrooms are right next to each other and they don’t close so there’s very little privacy. I thought this was strange at first but quickly got used to it. Now when people visit from the U.S. they always comment on it and I remember that I once thought it was strange too. It’s amazing what you can get used to though.
    .-= melanie gao´s last blog ..How to Walk from Brazil to Vietnam in One Day =-.

  4. Well… i was talking to a girl in the office about bra sizes and how to translate it into cm instead of the inches we use… and as we were discussing it.. some students where trying to get in on the conversations… mostly men… we tried to keep it kind of quiet since some men seem kind of strange about personal underwear, for some reason in China. Anyway, she said she didnt know how to do it.. and one man piped up and said he could do it.. I told him .. no you cant.. and he insisted yes.. he could…I said okay.. how do you do it… and he said.. what exactly.? I said.. translate bra size into inches instead of cm…. he turned bright red and said.. ohhh.. no I cant.. and quickly left… so did everyone else… I guess if they would have left us to ourselves.. they wouldnt have been so embarassed… I think lack of privacy comes from .. Them being so nosey…. which by the way .. I explained to my students the meaning . So they would be aware of the pet peeve I have.

  5. I actually had this problem very recently. Going to the hospitals around here (especially little ones like the one in Huzhou) pretty much makes things worse, even more so if it’s for a more private matter. In the few times I’ve done this there’s always been an audience, even when I’m with the doctor, and sometimes, because many pregnant women come with their husbands, there have been males standing just outside the open door. How nice.
    It is so disconcerting and uncomfortable to have everything so out in the open. Ironic that I say that given that most Chinese think Westerners are so ‘open.’
    The one thing I do like is such easy access to medical records. At local hospitals, patients keep their medical records, the hospitals don’t. At an international clinic in Shanghai, they readily photocopy any test or doctor’s form I ask them for, whereas in America it’s nearly impossible to acquire a record of any kind.

    1. Wow, what a response from this, and what fascinating stories you all have to share! Clearly I’m not the only one who has felt this.

      Nicky, I admire your ability to take it in stride (and I could imagine the “white girl butt” in the ER — wow)!

      Europeangirl, I’ve been there in those way-too-small toilets. Ah yes…

      Melanie, it’s so true you can get used to the lack of privacy — and now I’m intrigued by those bathrooms

      Crystal, interesting to see how it is from the other side, as always.

      Jo, I could just see you saying that to the Chinese guy, and him turning bright red. What a funny story!

      Globalgal, I loved the link you shared — oh my! For those of you who haven’t read it, it’s a good one.

      Ellis, I feel for you, and yes, I have been there w/ the husbands (or boyfriends, as in the case of an unmarried couple being told she was pregnant…ouch…and I overheard everything.) But you do have a point about the records.

  6. Jocelyn, I wasn’t too happy about it, but decided that having less pain was more important than having more privacy at that particular moment! Unfortunately the shot did basically nothing for the pain so it was all for nothing anyway.

    Jo’s bra story reminded me of the time I was in the supermarket and actually found a bra I thought might work for me. (I generally wait to buy in the US because I’m very picky about bras, I hate padding and underwire and there’s practically nothing here that doesn’t have one or the other or more likely both.) Anyway, I tossed it in my shopping cart and turned to see if there were any others I wanted to buy. I heard a lot of giggling and I turned around to find a couple of twenty-something girls had fished it out of my shopping cart!!! and were giggling over the size I wore!!! I actually left the whole cart and walked out of the store without buying anything, I was so mad.

    1. Nicki, that is just heartbreaking — I cannot believe those girls would do that to you! I’m sure I would have walked out as well.

      Your comment makes me think about when I tried buying underwear, but I wasn’t sure what size I was, so I decided to ask one of the ladies in the lingerie dept. She didn’t exactly laugh at me, but she gave me this crazy look, and I have to wonder if it was because I was holding up the XXL underwear (and she probably thought, “what a whale” or something similarly insensitive).

  7. I remember when my wife and I went for her first ultrasound here in Tianjin. It was of course a magical day for us, getting the first photo of our baby and seeing her for the first time. But yeah, it was like you said, everyone crowding around, shoving their papers at the nurse, and zero privacy. We were going in starry-eyed at the thought of the tiny baby inside my wife, so it was all the more sad to hear another woman say to the same nurse regarding her own baby, “I want to abort it.”

    I just realized I didn’t have you on my blogroll — thought I’d added you ages ago. Anyway, problem solved.

    1. Hi Joel,

      Thanks for sharing — wow, that must have felt so anticlimactic. I had no idea that your wife was pregnant when you were in China.

      And, btw, thanks for the link love!

  8. Dear Jocelyn :
    Recently while on a blog walk I stumbled upon your blog. God does indeed work in mysterious and sometimes delightful ways. I will be following your blog from now on.

    With regard to your rather unpleasant hospital experience. I can relate completely to your experience although I had a somewhat different solution. I’m told my solution was somewhat ” culturally insensitive ” but considering the nature of your problem I think it’s highly ” culturally insensitive ” on the Chinese part to expect you to blare out the most intimate details of your health. My solution was two fold. First I got downright nasty and informed them that it would be done MY way period. If they hesitate I ask for the boss and when he she arrives I take a good deal of money out of my pocket and wave it around telling them that if they want the money they WILL do it MY way. In every instance where I’ve had similar problems to yours this solution has worked. They’ve hated me for forcing the issue this way but quite frankly I don’t care. I think in situations like these a little cultural sensitivity on THEIR parts is called for.

    On another note. Just in case you don’t know your dealings with the bored nurse are most likely rooted in the fact that the worst Chinese students are directed into nursing and teaching by the government. She probably never wanted to be a nurse and hates her job. I know that is no excuse but sometimes knowing these things can help you know how to deal with these situations. Isn’t that just the most enlightening of policies by the Chinese government?

    I’ll be looking forward to speaking with you more soon.


    1. Dear Paul,

      Thanks so much for the comment, and for sharing your experiences. I’ll bet many nurses are unhappy w/ their careers — I know it’s true for teachers b/c my husband studied to be a teacher long ago, and knows many teachers who ended up switching to something else.

      Hope to see you around!

  9. Guys have problems buying clothes and underwear here too. I’ve only had people snicker about size twice, and both times I proclaimed loudly to my wife (in Chinese), “Honey, we’ll have to go somewhere else. This store only sells childrens’ sizes. We’ll have to find a store that sells menswear.” Just a moment later, all of those snickering “men” turn bright red as they realize that their “considerable bulk” only adds up to the size of an American 9 year old child.

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