Personal Narratives

First Impressions of China

This piece was written back in January 2011 when I first moved to Beijing. It has been updated/edited and posted here for your enjoyment!

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Medical Checks for Foreigners

First experiences in China can sometimes be a little difficult for foreigners. One such experience would be my very first medical checkup:

After about an hour long subway ride on Line 13 heading northeast out of the city center, I arrived at the stop where I would meet Lucia, a wonderful EF associate, who would take me and another newly arrived teacher, Kurt, to have our mandatory medical checkup completed.

Everything went smoothly. More smoothly than I expected really. After having spent a year in the haphazardly-run Indonesia, I had this weird assumption that anything taking place in a foreign country would be more or less chaotic. (Fortunately, that was not the case in China.) Even though it was a post-work Monday afternoon, the medical checkup center seemed surprisingly quiet and serene.

Basically, once you sign in at the registration desk, you are given a sheet of paper with your webcam picture scanned on the top right corner of the page. There are several serious looking sentences written in Mandarin characters spread throughout the page along with a detailed list in the center of the document letting you know which rooms would do the various required tests. All to ensure that you are in fact Not Abnormal.

(Why not a good old-fashioned Normal? Or even a comforting Healthy?)


Photo by Luan Rezende on

The ECG that Would Never End

All in all it was a semi-undaunting procedure. The most interesting part of my time in the medical checkup had to be the first room I visited to have an ECG. The test itself took a matter of seconds, if that. It was the process leading up to the test that was hilariously, frustratingly ridiculous.

I walked into a room and met eyes with a tiny yet robust, good-natured looking woman ready to administer the test. People prior to me seemed to take some time having their ECG completed, and based on the explanation of the how the test was administered on the front door (a pad on the ankle or on the knee), I could not imagine why that was. That is, until I went into the exam room.

Now, being in China and not yet knowing the language can be difficult when trying to communicate anything specific. Usually I just kind of flail my arms around to act out what I’m trying to communicate, which seems to be more or less comprehensible (and maybe sometimes a little humorous to the person watching me swing my arms around like an idiot). It can take a few seconds of gestures and sometimes adding in some form of realia to drive the point before the message is fully clear for both parties.

So we exchanged a quick, “Nĭ hăo,” and the miming began. She pointed at my shoes. I took them off. She saw that I was wearing socks. (According to the sign/graph on the entrance, you have to have an ankle or knee exposed for the test to be properly administered.) She grudgingly sniffed at me and pointed to my sock. I took my sock off. Alas! She saw that I was also wearing tights and became a little more exasperated with me; but in my defence, it was a deathly cold winter…I needed the extra layers. So she pointed at my pants, which I guessed meant we were going with the knee for my test.

I unbuttoned my jeans and gestured pulling them down.

I was met with a strong, ‘NO!’ coupled with emphatic arm gestures.

I pulled them back up, confused and a little embarrassed.

I was met with another, ‘NO! NO!’ (More arm gestures.)

I pulled them down and looked at her, hoping for a different reaction or some kind of confirmation.

Again, ‘NO!’

I was about to pull them up.


At this point, I was surprised she hadn’t taken off into flight with all the arm waving she was doing. And I was still no closer to knowing exactly what it was that she wanted.

I pulled down my jeans and proceeded to take down my tights.


I pulled jeans and tights back up.


Now, at this point I was extremely frustrated. So I just stood there, completely at a loss as to what articles of clothing she wanted me to remove. (For a brief moment, I thought to move on to my sweater to see if we could accomplish something there, but I immediately decided that that probably would not have been the best move.)

She eventually motioned to me again to remove my pants. This time, as I was more than slightly agitated, I took down my pants and my tights in one fell swoop, ignoring the fact that my bottom, covered only by a flimsy thong, was exposed for the world to see, and I looked her dead in the eyes for some kind of definitive confirmation that I was doing something correctly this time, all before she could yell ‘NO!’ at me again.

(Slightly awkward pause here filled with unyielding, unblinking eye contact.)

Finally, she motioned for me to lie down on the patient’s bed covered in that sanitary, loud and crunchy placemat for humans. She pulled my tights and pants down a bit further so she could connect some sort of clamp thing to my knee.

We had finally reached an unbreakable agreement.

As she was placing suction cups to my torso, making me feel like some newly discovered alien creature, she tsked at me, shook her head and chuckled and said a simple, ‘Difficult.’ The only other English word she used for the entire dance we did.

Well, at least I made a lasting impression.

And if I’m lucky, putting aside the fiasco that was the first test room, I will be medically labelled Not Abnormal.

Hello all. I am a full-time writer who is constantly discovering her voice. I write poetry, personal narratives and short stories. I'm always open to reaching and connecting with new readers, so leave me a comment or question. Let's start a dialogue! Don't forget to follow me here and on Twitter/Instagram (@exisflor).

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