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A bitter pill to swallow in Beijing

Wednesday September 13, 2006

Elisabeth Hallett

"I should have given the doctor a xiao hongbao," said Xiao Yuan dolefully, "a few hundred yuan, like the woman in the bed next to me said."

She rolled up her right trouser leg. On her lower leg were four or five surgical scars; further up the veins were blue and bulging.

"Aiya . . . six months already and it's still so weak and painful."
Xiao Yuan had thought long and hard about where to have her varicose veins done.

Her mother in law back in the village in Anhui province had tried to persuade her to have the operation done in the county hospital - it would not cost too much and she could be looked after at home. But Xiao Yuan was worried that a rural hospital might do a bad job, leaving her unable to return to work in Beijing. To have the operation done in a city hospital would cost a good six months' wages, she reckoned, not to mention the loss of earnings while she recovered. But at least Beijing doctors were well trained and the hospital wards were clean.

Several months went by as she deliberated. I asked her what her husband thought. "Ta bu guan," she said in exasperation. "He doesn't care what I do. Too busy gambling and drinking."

Delinquent husband aside, Xiao Yuan was on her own in Beijing, living in a small community of migrant workers in a cupboard-sized room, with a prostitute as a neighbour. The money she earned working seven days a week as a domestic in four different households supported her good-for-nothing husband, her elderly parents-in-law and two teenage children back in the countryside. Without her earnings the family would be destitute.

Finally, she decided that, despite the cost, it would be safer to have the operation done in a Beijing hospital. Everything seemed to go well. Dr Zhang was attentive and the three-person ward was basic but clean. A week and 6,000 yuan ($725) later she was back home. But half a year later she was still off work, her upper leg lumpy with blue distended veins.

"Nothing the matter," Dr Zhang said brusquely, when she went back for check-ups. "You've just got an unusual sort of leg. You can't expect it to be perfect."

It was all her fault; the hospital had followed the correct procedures. She could have a second operation if she wanted, but of course that would be another 6,000 yuan. It was up to her.

Xiao Yuan was distraught. "They're bullying me because I'm a waidiren, from outside Beijing. They just don't want to admit they made a mistake."

When I asked her if she would like me to go to the hospital with her, she brightened up. "If they see a foreigner they'll be careful, they won't want to lose face."

For good measure my husband accompanied us and we queued in the crowded corridor outside the consultant's room. Consultant Yao barely glanced up when we entered. He looked exhausted. People kept pushing their way into the room, oblivious to us sitting there.

Yes, another operation was necessary, 6,000 yuan would do the trick. "And if she has it done as an outpatient?" asked my husband, pulling out his card that names him as a film producer. Yao glanced at it, and hesitated for a moment. "Let's say 100 yuan ($12) would be fine."

Xiao Yuan was jubilant. "That's as good as admitting that they made a mistake. He was frightened the foreigners would make trouble for him."

On the day of the operation Xiao Yuan asked me to go with her "just in case they bully me again".

When she hobbled out of the operating theatre she told me it had been a quick, painful affair involving half a dozen incisions and a last-minute argument between the surgeons about whether 100 yuan was enough to cover all six cuts.

But she was already on the operating table, and what with a queue of patients also waiting for treatment there wasn't time to send her back to the cashier.

"I told them you were taking me back in a taxi and you know what they said? What does that laowai want to go home with you for?"

"And what did you say?" I asked. Xiao Yuan giggled, covering her mouth with her hand. "I just told them it was none of their business!" And the laowai and the waidiren had a good laugh, both aliens in this tough city.

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