China Research

Privacy and the Personal Bubble

This past week has been quite the adventure for me! Instead of following my regular schedule of working in the lab during the day and exploring the city at night, I found myself in an unexpected new place: the hospital. My lab mate was kind enough to take me to the hospital after an unfortunate injury to my finger. How the injury occurred is much less interesting than my overall experience at a Chinese hospital. Throughout my time here, I have learned to expect that many of my experiences in Xiamen will be drastically different from my experiences in the United States. That being said, I had no idea what to expect when I entered a Chinese hospital as a patient for the first time.

In the United States, I am used to waiting patiently in a waiting room until I am individually called to meet with a doctor. Then I wait alone in a small room for a nurse, and finally for the doctor to meet with me. Not just any doctor, but my doctor who I have known for years. In this hospital, things were very different. Fortunately, we were able to bypass the waiting room thanks to our connections with a friendly pre-med student working at the hospital. He was extremely helpful in guiding us around and explaining my injury to the doctors. The first room we entered was a small room containing with one desk, one stool, one doctor, and about ten patients. I stood in line along with the other patients as the doctor assessed each person. There was a very different sense of privacy here, and it seemed to be a completely normal interaction for patients to listen and make comments about the doctor’s diagnosis of other patients. Sure enough, when it was my turn to be assessed the other patients crowded around me waiting to hear the doctor’s diagnosis for the foreigner with the mysterious finger injury. I couldn’t understand what the doctor or patients were saying until my lab mate translated for me. However, the patients’ gasps and worried tones in response to the doctor’s comments made it clear to me that the diagnosis was not a pleasant one. After visiting with the doctor, we were led to another room where we spoke with a more specialized doctor. We went through the same process in order to get a second opinion on my injury. After that we were led to a third doctor, and then to a fourth doctor! The fourth doctor was the most specialized in his field and made the final decision on how to proceed with the injury. I preferred his office because of the privacy. Finally, I was the only patient being treated in his office!

The most frustrating part of my experience was having to rely on someone else to translate for the doctor. My lab mate is trustworthy and was extremely helpful in explaining to me what the doctor was saying, but it was frustrating not hearing the details for myself about an issue that I was concerned about. We only ran into one translation problem, where my lab mate mistakenly informed me that the doctor would have to “remove my finger.” It took several seconds of staring at my panicked face for her to realize that she had accidentally used the wrong English words. Oops! I have no hard feelings about it and now we joke about the misunderstanding.

After a quick procedure, I was asked to return to the hospital throughout the week so the doctor could monitor my improvement. Here I encountered the same cultural difference in regards to privacy. During these checkups, curious patients did not hesitate to enter the room, hover over my shoulder, and watch intently as the doctors handled my rather unpleasant and disgusting wound. It was difficult at times to hide my look of disbelief because their presence felt to me like an invasion of my privacy. In one case, a man stood so close to me that he popped my invisible personal bubble! He was so close that I could actually hear him breathing as he watched the doctor handle my injury. Several times I had to stop and take a second to remember that the patients did not realize how uncomfortable they made me. In the United States, it would be considered rude and intrusive for patients to watch and listen during your individual doctor visit, but their culture does not find those actions unacceptable. From the patients’ perspectives, they had done nothing wrong. It was an interesting and difficult difference to adjust to, and I realized that I could not be offended by these interactions because it was no one’s intention to upset me.

Unfortunately, my injury has set me back a few days in my research and has prevented me from doing some of the hands-on work in my lab. Thankfully, there are still some procedures that I am more than capable of performing while I recover. We are approaching the end of our research, but there is still a lot of information and data that my lab mate and I need to obtain. We are working very hard this week to retrieve as much data as possible before we leave Xiamen. If it were possible to extend the amount of time we have to gather data I would be thrilled because I think our data will be very helpful for future research on this shark species. It will be exciting to finally analyze our results!