China and its little absurdities – Guangzhou


It’s hard to feel culture-shock when you come from a country as multicultural as Australia. I still don’t think that’s an ethnocentrically obnoxious claim to make, which is why, from the floor of the No. 1 People’s Hospital in Guangzhou China, and despite not being able to differentiate between the multitude of pains all around my body, I have just woken to a confusing mix of the heat of being about to vomit again and having finally found myself absolutely unable to comprehend a situation.

Above me is a tall wooden stool which I had (until a few seconds before) been sort of half slumped over having blood taken from my fingertips, and one surgically-masked, unaffected if not somewhat clammy Cantonese face peering over. From one service window in a row of twelve, he glanced briefly at what would have been a pink pile of jacket and sprayed out medical papers on the white tiles. When I adjusted to the shock of momentarily blacking out and the pain of the fall, his face had disappeared. I heard the wooden clunk of the small office door, the squeak squeak squeak of rubber soles and then felt him kneeling beside me. He grabbed my right hand from the floor, pricked it bluntly with the other needle, filled another plastic tube with blood and returned to his post behind the counter, having completed his task. Despite the embarrassment, despite the dysmorphic effects of the fluorescent lighting and despite the brutality of his disregard for my flailing descent to the floor, I felt a curious little smile settle itself warmly in my heart.

A while later, sitting with a friend in the waiting room, we both stared up at the clear bag of liquids as it slowly dripped down one tube, through another and slid into my veins. The hospital I’d been taken to that morning was a ‘famous’ Chinese Traditional Medicine (CTM) hospital. In that week alone, I’d been to the most ‘famous’ abalone restaurant, the most ‘famous’ curtain maker and the most ‘famous’ shoe factory in Guangzhou. The title had lost its guarantee.

As we sat and idly discussed the fact that I most likely was suffering from a good old trench warfare-style bout of dysentery (I was), we watched the hospital’s supply trays move by the doorway: a pile of dried snakeskins, piled boxes of hawthorn berries and dried dates, a big old assortment of dried mushrooms and lastly, what I’m pretty certain was a carton of deer hooves. Just the hooves. It looked like the offerings of a traveling gypsy market, not the daily supplies of a massive and very well established hospital. In the room across the hall, we watched by as an optometrist tested a patient’s vision, checking each eye in turn by covering them with intricately painted ceramic soup spoons. When he was done with the soiled spoon, I heard the delicate clink of each one sinking to the bottom of a plastic washing-up tub. Although the hospital was quite packed with people that morning, the rushing and shuffling of feet was all we heard, and was serene.

Guangzhou - teaIn China, it’s these little absurdities that make sure I remember that I’m here for an adventure. Absurdities such as the official population of Guangzhou being displayed around the city as anywhere between 14 and 40 million. Or the fact that the oldest rentable apartment I could find to view was seven years old while the history of Guangzhou generally begins around 214 BC. The only effective room deodoriser when the septic tank is leaking downstairs? Tea. Got bleach stains? Tea. Migraine? Bad energy? Mildew on your sofa? It’s the intangible marker of Chinese culture, and it does not need science. China doesn’t have the patronising cuteness of us being able to palatably imagine its population as really just a nation of bagel heads like Japan, or a head of state who probably couldn’t plan a nuclear attack without a donut in his hand like South Korea.

It seems that no matter how far I cast my self-exile into the world, what keeps me hooked on China is that no level of competency in Mandarin can compensate for some of the things I see everyday as one of many many many millions of people living here. It’s here that I realise over and over that no matter how limited or non-existent the resources for making yourself understood can be, space for that weak holy moment of finding yourself captive in the performance of your human awkwardness is a scarce and affirming thing.

Stephanie Cobon


Words and pictures by Stephanie Cobon.