My first experience of Chinese healthcare, then.
This was some time back, in April 2000, or so. I had been in Shanghai a few years by that time, and I had been loving it – expect for the couple of months leading up to that April. Most every day at that time was misery and stress.
Not, I should say, my sensitive soul lamenting at the plight of the Chinese people. No.
By god they hurt. I’d had the odd bit of arse agony back in the UK, but nothing like this. I guess it was the change in diet.
I remember the day I was in the Watsons’ drug store, by the Portman, and I saw there on a shelf – glowing like a grail, a carton of H, Preparation H. What bliss! It was that moment in Handel’s Messiah, when the band sing “And god said, ‘Let there be light' and there was........." and then the pause, followed by "....Light!” A fine, wonderful bit of music and quite what I felt when I saw the H.
And – a slight aside – wonderful though ‘The Messiah’ is – glorious, expansive, moving music – it has fallen foul of the Commies. The Academy of Ancient Music, a fine UK based ensemble, was due to give a public performance of this at the Beijing Music Festival. But then the scumbag Chinese government decided to insist it had to be an ‘invitation only’ gig – which meant the general public could not attend. Likewise, a performance of Mozart’s Requiem, intended to raise money for the Sichuan quake victims, was cancelled. The reason for this being that the thugs and goons who run China did not want this ‘christian’ music played, for fear it might turn more Chinese people into believers. Now, sure, in the 21st century, like also the 20th C, to genuinely believe god exists is either a sign of moral cowardice or mental illness. But to ban some of the greatest music humanity has produced is simply risible, absurd. And to ban it even when it is intended to help people who are suffering in China! These guys are the leaders of 20% of the human race, and they are clods and cretins.
So I grabbed the H, paid my 49.50 yuan, and scarpered to the lav. I’d never used Prep H before (but every schoolboy knows what it is) and when I slapped it on – oh, the bliss, the cessation of pain. I could feel ‘em shrinking, tingling, retracting. What joy!
And what a contrast to my prior attempt at medicating my poor arse. At that time I could speak no Chinese, and so I had to make do as best I could. I went into one small pharmacy and inspected what they had for sale. Most of it, being written in Chinese, meant nothing to me. But I did see one product that sounded familiar – Tiger Balm. Balm! Balm sounded good to me. My arse needed some balm. Balm was what I wanted.
I should, of course, have focused on ‘Tiger,’ not ‘Balm.’ I did not. I brought it, took it home, and applied it.
Only the once. Just the once.
Anyhow, fast forward to the blissful days of Preparation H. That was good. I remember its greasy, aromatic, fish-oil smell with pleasure.
But this was when I got an early lesson in how to live in China. And that is – if you see something on the shelves you really like or need, buy as much of it as there is, or as you can afford. Because sure as shit it’s like to be gone the next time you look for it. So it was when I went back to the Watsons, the shelf empty, a promised land no longer. Worse, far worse than being stood up on a hot date. More annoying even than arranging a hot date and finding (this has happened) I have actually invited a bloke, not a woman – and what a boring type he was. That’s a tale for another time.
Faced with the empty shelf – double, tripled checked and other areas of the store searched – I asked an assistant for help. I’m not really the type to be embarrassed by this sort of stuff (I think I already told the tale of taking Mona on a shopping expedition for extra-big condoms – to use with a new Western lover of hers, after our relationship had become just platonic), but the assistant was somewhat ill at ease, uncomfortable, red-faced as he told me “We will have more in soon.”
That was bullshit, of course. I went back several times over the next couple of weeks. Never any H. Always the empty shelf… always the embarrassed assistant.
A week or two more of the pain, and sitting on my chair wriggling my butt cheeks as tight together as possible, thus to squeeze the throbbing pile back inwards, was enough; I headed to a hospital, the one just near Huaihai Lu and Shaanxi Nan Lu. And since I spoke no Chinese at that time I had to rely on my then-girlfriend to come with me to assist me in finding the right doctor.
We did this easy enough and the doc took a look at my arse, sucked in his breath, shook his head, tutted, the medical equivalent of kicking my tires, and suggested I book an operation. ‘You’ll need a few days off afterwards’ he said, which, with the May holiday week upcoming, was easy enough to arrange. Then he wrote out a prescription for a several-day course of laxatives. Gotta clear out the arse, see.
Only, it did not work – first dose – no effect. Second, third – not a thing. I drank down the whole prescription. Zip. Went back to the pharmacy, got more. Perfectly useless.
Operation day comes round. I go back to the same area I’d met the arse doctor before. He greets me, and gives me a gown to put on. I do so, and look about me for the way to the operating room.
No operating room. The doc indicates a raised, tiled slab, right there in the public area, surrounded by a low wall. I lie on it while he injects my arse with anesthetic. Gives it a few moments to work, then dives right in. Gets his assistant – a young woman – to hold open my arse while he, with a scalpel, cuts out a bunch of the piles therein. It is a pretty uncomfortable operation, and gets more uncomfortable as it goes on – and it seems a lengthy process, 10 or 15 minutes. I feel a rising sense of sickness and weakness, and put it down to all the blood I feel I must be losing out of my arse, though I doubt it was really that much.
And all this while my girlfriend is standing there watching, and random patients walking by take a peek, me on my side, my arsehole wide open to the world. And I can feel that damn scalpel scratching around inside me. As this is going on I think of my brother.
See, piles runs in the ChinaBounder family. The ol’ man, the brother. Brother had his fixed a year or two prior, and for his operation they just stuck some sorta’ probe up his arse which put elastic bands round the piles – they then shrivel and fall off over a few weeks. Quick, easy, painless. So I gotta say I did rather curse ‘Bloody second rate Chinese hospitals with their old fashioned outdated equipment.’ But that was unfair, as the doc was doing his best.
The doc announces he is done. Gives my arse a clean up and prepares to swathe it in lint. But not so fast doc – for now, after a week of laxatives, now I need to take a shit. I get to my feet, find myself weak, and have to rely on my girlfriend (how remarkably patient she was with me!) to escort me to the toilet – which is, of course, the typical Chinese squat toilet. But I barely have time to think off a curse before I crouch and let fly a simply phenomenal amount of turd. It feels pretty good, I gotta say.
Of course this being a Chinese toilet, no matter in a hospital, there is no paper. So I have to stagger back to the poor ol’ doc, all besmeared in shit, and collapse back onto the table, where he tuts and gets going with the swab.
And then he writes out one more prescription, gives it to my girl, and, while she goes off to the pharmacy to get it, I sit wan and weak in a chair – sit carefully – and think myself moderately heroic. Thence to a taxi and home. Arse seems good. I sleep.
I wake. Arse on fire. Arse agony. Oh to bring back the piles, trade them for this pain. True, the body has no memory of pain, and I do not now remember the pain itself – rather just the awareness of it. Remember from time to time pounding my fist on the mattress for the pain – and one time thumping my girlfriend really hard, waking to pain out of a doze and not knowing she was lying beside me. She was cool about it. Shame I ended up really hurting her a year or so later.
That final prescription the doc gave her was for arse healing medicine – traditional Chinese arse healing medicine. It was a bunch of bits of bark and twig which I was meant to steep in hot water, let cool, and dip my arse in for half an hour a day. I did so. Zero effect, as far as I can tell. The pain subsided in three or four days, and I’m pretty certain it would have done so with or without the TCM. But that is the grand con of TCM – it is ‘slow acting’ – which is another way of saying ‘makes no difference to the normal healing process, but if you believe in it, it’ll make you feel better.’
The first post-op dump was sheer agony, of course, even coming several days after the scalpelling (soup diet only up til then) – but things healed up pretty good after that, and soon it was a bliss to be able to walk the streets normally, not waddle like a duck, butt cheeks clenched together.
So all in all I was pretty pleased with my first experience of Chinese healthcare. And the bill for it – around 2000 yuan – seemed a fair price too. They did try on a little con, wanting me to pay 6000 – cos I was a foreigner, you see – but my girl would have none of that and let them know it.
But without that money, even if I had been really ill, had been dying, I’d have been on my own. There’d have been no healthcare for me. If you’ve got plenty money life in China is pretty good. If you only got a little – or indeed only have the average wage for which so many tens of millions toil – then life is brutish.