There’s no ambulance for Chinese doctors, though they desperately need life support

When I was in Beijing several weeks ago, the most shocking things I heard came from a doctor friend of mine. He is a urologist at a Beijing Hospital, who I’ll call Dr. Wang.

I actually met Dr. Wang nine years ago when I came through Beijing and suddenly found myself without any place to stay. Dr. Wang, who was introduced to me through the friend of a husband (who also used to work at the hospital), offered to let me stay in his dormitory room. Not only is it generally against the rules to have women stay in men’s dormitory rooms, but it’s almost certainly bad form to have a foreigner there. But Dr. Wang, as he told me earlier this month when I asked him about it, is “the kind of person who doesn’t really care about rules like that.” He’s a rare bird, indeed — direct and brutally honest, two qualities you don’t normally find in China. Plus, he’s just an all-around nice guy.

I didn’t really get to know him then, but I had thought of him every now and then over the years. Finally, when I had the chance to go to Beijing, I decided to see him, since he was still there. It had been so long and I thought it would be nice to see a familiar face.

Indeed, Dr. Wang was as friendly and hospitable as I expected. He had a car, and offered to drive me and my other Chinese friend Peter to a vegetarian restaurant for dinner. He also later offered to drop me off at the airport (which, although he was unable to do later, instead arranged for a friend to send me there).

Still, I had a sense that something was amiss in his life. I could see it in the first moment I entered his car and looked at his face. While it had only been nine years, he looked as though he’d aged twice that period of time. His eyes were tired with dark rings, his complexion a bit wan, and he’d lost a considerable amount of hair. My intuition turned out to be right, as I discovered later in our conversations — when Dr. Wang painted a dark picture of the reality in his hospital…a world where doctors get no respect and understanding, from either the patients or the leaders.

Doctors in China actually receive relatively low salaries, which is shocking because they are in charge of saving people’s lives. Though Dr. Wang had a car, he explained he did not buy it, but rather it was a wedding gift. He emphasized that it was something he could never afford on his own salary.

He said that once he treated a little boy and, despite his best efforts, the boy still died. What did the family do? They kidnapped him. They held him at knifepoint and said “we know you tried your hardest to save our son. But you see, we paid so much money for the treatment and, now that our son is gone, we need you to negotiate with the hospital to get back our money.” Dr. Wang told them he regretted trying to save their son’s life.

When the head doctors make a mistake, they will blame the assistant doctors (such as Dr. Wang). While I was in Beijing, he got blamed for a treatment that wasn’t supposed to be done (which wasn’t his fault). Still, he said he is less likely to be blamed. Why? “Because I am smart and industrious. I did not make many mistakes and have always been trying to treat the patient well. All I am trying to do is save his or her life. Sometimes I finish my work but I will still handle the patient to the next shift. If I am not there, maybe he or she will die.”

Dr. Wang said that the hospital charges employees more if they drink the hospital’s water, as opposed to bringing their own water to the hospital. “What do you think of that?” he asked me. And when I said “really?” he responded with “horrible — and all of us find this really indignant.”

He keeps his ideas to himself and never shares with the leaders. In his words: “You know, I have translated a huge book. But do you know why I would like to translate such a book? During that time, I only sleep for 2 or 3 or 4 hours everyday. I do not want to cooperate with others because if I tell my plan to the head of the doctors or the head of the hospital, he will say ‘you needn’t do that work, let me do it.’ He will rob me of the opportunity, and he will take all of the authorship.”

Additionally, saddest of all, he said the hospitals are not allowed to register any deaths. Several days before we met, despite all of his best efforts, a woman died. He then had to go talk with the family to convince them to take the body back home with them in the middle of the night, so that it would not be considered a death at the hospital.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Dr. Wang hopes to work in another country as a researcher. He just desperately wants respect, and wants a good life.

I think of him now especially because he is being worked to death, literally. As I write this, he is recovering from some kidney stones. Last time I tried calling him, he was in the hospital himself. 早日康复(get well soon)!

Everyone has a right to clean air — a no smoking campaign in Beijing

Yesterday on June 1, when I was in the underground tunnel crossing into Tian’anmen, I saw an interesting sign. It said “everyone has a right to breathe fresh air.” It had pictures of someone’s lungs/heart getting ruined, and it was asking people not to smoke in public places. It was shocking, really shocking – I’ve never seen anything like that in China in all my years there.

Later, when I came back to my in-laws’ home in the countryside of Hangzhou, I then saw an ad on TV decrying the harmfulness of smoking, and asking people to quit. Again, my jaws dropped.

As much as I dislike smoking, I know this is going to be hard fight. And that’s not just because I saw many Beijingers puffing away in complete disregard for the no smoking signs in restaurants. It’s because it’s such an integral part of being a man in China.

In the beginning, when China opened up, smoking was a way for men to display one’s wealth. Now, of course, cigarettes are a pretty common thing in China, so it has become a part of being a socialized Chinese man.

Chinese men have a lot of pressure, as my friend Peter Pi, in Beijing, mentioned — and few outlets for relaxation, especially out in the countryside. In the countryside, there are no libraries, no gyms, no nothing – just the bars, so all Chinese men have to do to relax themselves is smoking (and drinking, of course).

And, as all of us know, smoking happens in some of the most inopportune and surprising places in China. Offices. Elevators. Buses and trains (especially the really slow trains). Even your own home (today, when the installation guy came over to put in our DSL, when he had a moment to wait, he threw a cigarette in his mouth and was all ready to light up until I respectfully asked him not to). People here just don’t have the belief that there is anything wrong with exposing others to secondhand smoke — even their own children or pregnant wives.

But this campaign is the first sign of a changing tide, though slow moving it may be. After all, didn’t America go through its period of gratuitous smoking (remember those ads where doctors recommended cigarette brands?).

The most curiously Chinese Letter-and-Visits (Xinfang) Bureau

As I walked over to the Beijing apartment of my dear friend Peter, he happened to point out the Xinfang Bureau, perhaps one of the most quintessentially Chinese government inventions.

The Xinfang Bureau’s entire reason for existence is to process any written or in-person complaints about other government bureaus. At least, it’s supposed to. And it’s meant to suggest that the government is taking care of internal problems.

However, Peter said that sometimes there is a van parked outside so that, if large groups come to file a complaint, they will be directed to the van, and shipped off to somewhere else. :-/


Foreigner’s Guide to Bicycling in China: everything you ever (and in some cases perhaps never) wanted to know about bicycling in the Middle Kingdom

Foreward: I wrote this several years ago and, just recently, one of the members of my writer’s group mentioned how much she loved it. So, I’m kicking off the “new version” of Speaking of China with this classic article. Enjoy!


When in China, do as the Chinese do: bicycle. Of all the transportation possibilities available, it perhaps offers you the some of the most freedom and flexibility. No more traffic jams. No more catching the latest flu or virus in crowded buses and subways. No more fighting for a taxi during rush hour. No more being a moving target on the sidewalks.

Sounds great, right?

Yet, your enthusiasm may not find a home with your foreign colleagues. Many people shun bicycling for a variety of reasons: safety, inconvenience and even fear. Talk to a few folks and you might even hear some disconcerting tales of woe. Things such as hitting an elderly Chinese man – resulting in the poor fellow’s death – and then having to fork out $10,000 for your little oversight (a true story from a former coworker of mine).

Is cycling worth the price? I can’t tell you any feel-good-miraculous-Lance-Armstrong tale. Heck, I once had a little fender bender and handed over 100 RMB for damages. But I do know one thing – I could have avoided this and many other troubles if I’d known a little more before hitting the road.

With that in mind, I bring you the official “Foreigner’s Guide to Bicycling in China”: everything you ever (and in some cases perhaps never) wanted to know about bicycling in the Middle Kingdom. Continue reading “Foreigner’s Guide to Bicycling in China: everything you ever (and in some cases perhaps never) wanted to know about bicycling in the Middle Kingdom”