I Took a Chinese Physical and Survived

When we were offered teaching jobs in China, we had no idea just how involved the process would be to get our visas. We had to take countless pictures, send documents back and forth dozens of times, and still ended up unemployed and in Canada for six weeks longer than expected. But nothing in the visa process was quite as interesting as the physical exam.

All foreigners staying in China for more than six months have to have a physical examination done at a special quarantine office. I think they’re looking for infectious diseases or, as I read on one form, ‘Intense Psychosis’. We woke up on our third day in China feeling distinctly un-psychotic so I felt confident that this was a test I could pass.

Now to contextualize this story, you should know that our first two days in China were… challenging. Nothing had been what we had expected. Our neighbourhood was a little run down, our apartment was dirty when we arrived, every time we left the apartment people stared at us and filmed us, and even grocery shopping felt borderline traumatic. So there had been more than a few tearful breakdowns on my part, including one the day before the physical after hours of phone research and back and forth with friends in Beijing got us no closer to figuring out exactly how we were going to get to the quarantine office the next day. (We took a cab, it all worked out.)

Now I don’t know about you, but when I heard ‘physical exam’, I assumed we would be going to some kind of medical establishment. Instead we pulled up to a large building and walked into what can only be described as similar to the lobby of city hall.

There was a good number of Chinese folk there and the two incredibly blonde Eastern Europeans, who were even more terrified-looking than we were. We’d been talking about wanting to find friends, but they didn’t appear to be in the mood for chatting so we quickly sat down and tried to blend into the furniture as much as possible–not easy for us in China.

Our Chinese coordinator arrived just before it got too uncomfortable to bear. We filled out some forms and were ushered to a large bank of desks. Now, before we made this big move, everyone had told us that the Chinese don’t queue or line-up. This may seem like a minor difference from Western culture, but after being jostled in this mosh-pit of a ‘line’ for a few minutes, we just gave up, stepped back, and let our Chinese coordinator do the talking for us. 

Soon we were pushed down a hallway of what appeared to be cubicles, told to remove any jewellry we were wearing and wait right in front of a door. A minute later, the door opened and the very scared, very blonde Russian girl from the lobby bolted past me faster than an antelope fleeing a cheetah.

This started a string of cubicle visits, each with a new doctor inside, all of whom laughed at our passport photos and subjected us to various tests including:

  • A heart X-ray: I was pushed up against a machine and about 90 seconds later was being yelled at. It took me another 90 seconds to realize the technician was yelling ‘FINISHED. FINISHED.’
  • An eye and hearing test: We read symbols that appeared to be ‘E’s, ‘M’s, and ‘W’s off a chart. Whether or not they were was beyond us, but the doctor made no notion that anything was wrong. After the eye test, they apparently seemed satisfied with our hearing as well. I guess if you do well on eye tests, you get to skip the hearing test altogether. We were motioned to continue through the gauntlet.
  • An EKG: A no-nonsense Chinese woman pulled my bra up around my neck as if she was yanking on a pull-start lawnmower.
  • Blood-taking: Constantly reminding us that we needed to hold down on the spot after. Apparently Canadians are known for spurting blood
  • An ultrasound: Again, much shouting of “BRACE. PUSH OUT. BRACE.”

When leaving the ultrasound room, the technician said. “One More. One more.”

I nodded and walked out of the cubicle, telling our Chinese coordinator, “The lady said there’s one more.”

She made a face and then looked away. “Oh yes. How you say… pee pee.”

Pee pee.

Of course. Pee pee.

I laughed nervously.

We walked to a corner of the lobby where a woman was sitting behind a desk with a tray of vials in front of her. She shoved a plastic shot glass with a tiny spout at me.

“Fill half way,” our coordinator said. I nodded and headed to the bathroom.

Now, I had used a squat toilet maybe four times in my life. This would be the fifth. But because of the early start, I hadn’t drank anything that morning and had already used the facilities at the apartment, so the urge to pee was distinctly absent from my body. Nevertheless, I chose a stall (one not being used for storage), took a squat, held the shot glass under me and waited.

I tried to think flowing thoughts. Rainstorms, waterfalls. But nothing was working. Thirty seconds passed. Then a minute. Then two. I started to think about Adam, our coordinator, and the lady with the vials waiting outside. They knew exactly what I was doing and that it should not be taking this long. Anxiety started to sink in. I was becoming more tense by the second, which wasn’t helping at all.

I closed my eyes, took a few deep breaths, tried to go to a zen place with lots of running water and then…

I missed the shot glass. Because let’s be real, a shot glass is not a large target and in that position, I didn’t exactly have the privilege of being able to see what I was doing. I clenched, trying to preserve what little pee-urge I had and readjusted. Finally, I hit the bullseye, somehow doing so without peeing all over my hands.

And then came the moment when I realised that in order to pull my pants up, I needed two hands, which involved putting my open shot glass of urine somewhere. Unlike most Western public bathrooms, there was no toilet paper dispenser (if you need toilet paper, you bring your own) so that wasn’t an option. And neither was the the top of the toilet tank. (Where does the tank of a squatty potty go anyways?) Finally, I settled my open urine sample on the sticky floor as I buttoned my pants.

I picked my pee up and left the stall. It seemed like, in order to wash my hands, I would have to put my open shot glass on the counter and there was something even more undignified about people being able to see my pee than not washing my hands so I headed for the door.

I walked up to the woman behind the desk and attempted to hand her my pee. Instead she pushed a tiny vial at me. “Pour.”

Where, I thought.

I looked around and saw a public garbage can about ten feet away. This seemed like the only option. I approached but didn’t need to look to know that it was full other people’s half-full pee cups. The smell was indication enough. Clearly, my fear of spilling was rational. I mean, the shot glass was small but this vial was microscopic.

I started to pour convinced that I would feel some warm liquids all over my shaking hands at any moment. But luckily I filled the vial and dropped the disposable pee cup (and some left-over sample) into the garbage. Handing back the warm vial, I instantly started looking for hand sanitizer.

“What took you so long,” Adam said.

“I couldn’t pee.”

I just started laughing. And kept on laughing for a good long while. And I realised that it probably was the first time I had laughed in the whole three days that we’d been in China. I’d been so caught up in focusing on all that things that were hard and wallowing in a pit of self-pity about the things that I couldn’t control, I forgot that I could control how I responded to them.

People are always going to stare at us and film us, the shopping market is always going to smell weird, and lines here will always feel like mosh-pits. Those are things I can’t change. But instead of getting upset or annoyed, I can choose to say to myself, ‘Okay, this sucks for a second. But we’re alive, we’re taken care of, and also, how hilarious is this?’


That was the first day in China where things started to feel not-so-bad. Not that it’s been smooth sailing since then. I’ve still had a good number of breakdowns about missing home, the job being hard, and just wanting daily life to feel normal. But I have also collected more than my share of side-splitting stories…

We’ll save those for another post.


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