One of the People


By Bruce Humes

“You’ll have to excuse us, Bruce. We’ve always looked after you as a guest,” said longtime friend Liu Jie, pausing delicately. “But yesterday we treated you like one of our own.”

Indeed. My reception the previous night at the emergency room of this People’s Hospital in Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong, was probably typical for many citizens across the country: I had been summarily treated, hastily diagnosed and then sidelined, proving that there is at least one bastion in China where a foreigner needn’t worry about receiving “special” treatment.

My evening had begun with a cheap imported Mexican beer and a live band in a bar on Shangbu Road.  At half past ten I exited with my date, said goodnight to her, and began my homeward stroll alone. I got a call, put the mobile to my right ear and kept walking. Near the intersection of Shangbu and Shenzhen South Roads, a lively intersection just a stone’s throw from the seat of the city government, I got the ugliest surprise of my life. 

First came a violent tug at my hand with the handset, and then a searing pain ripped across the right side of my head. Bizarrely, I could hear a man nearby grunting like he was being kicked, again and again, in the ribs.  

Don’t ever resist!” is Shenzhen’s proverbial advice to the naïve victims — and there were hundreds every month in the early years of the 21st century — confronting a determined thief.  Yet there I was doing just that.  I grabbed at something shiny, seized it in my palm, and held on for dear life.

The grunting stopped suddenly and I opened my eyes.  Against the deep blue sky, the stars twinkled above the heads of onlookers drawn to the sight of a bleeding lao wai, curled up in a fetal position on the still-warm summer concrete. 


Doctors stitched up my skull to stop the bleeding, then parked me, unconscious, in the hospital’s hallway, along with the rest of the proletariat.  At four in the morning I came round and began to scream. Just a few inches away from my eyes, I noticed that my right hand, virtually severed in two at the palm, lay untreated and uncovered. 

“We can’t operate,” said a medic who eventually responded to my howling. “You’ll never be able to use your hand again.”  

“We’d better amputate right now,” piped up another. “Otherwise, if it gets infected and the gangrene moves up toward the shoulder, we’ll have to saw your whole arm off.” 

“Forget that!” I shot back in fluent Mandarin.  “I want you to stitch my hand back together. Ma shang! Right now!” 

They hesitated. I was a foreigner with no ID, no next of kin to contact, and — crucially — no cash to pay upfront for what could be a challenging and costly procedure. They recommended waiting a few hours until they could contact my consulate.  

“Let’s get this straight: I have plenty of money in the bank.  I’m a lao wai, for Chrissakes!” I argued forcefully.  “As for responsibility, I don’t intend to sue you. I’ll sign whatever you want saying I know the risks. Just give me the tamade papers!” 

Maybe it was my swearing in Chinese that did the trick, suggesting that I was lucid and not a new arrival to the Middle Kingdom. Soon after, they wheeled me into the operating room, administered anesthesia and I was lost to the world.  


In fact, I had next to no money in the bank and no medical insurance, so I was alarmed when I awoke in the Intensive Care Unit. I’d read in the local press that many hospitals in China charge patients according to their nationality, which meant I’d be paying the same fee as for a day’s stay in a New York City hospital. Whoa!

But that wasn’t the only factor that made me want to escape the unit. In order to fight against infection and save my hand, over the course of a day the nurses pumped at least eight large containers of antibiotics into me via an omnipresent “Chinese Drip.” That’s a lot of liquid, and what went in had to come out.

Curiously, as also happened during an earlier hospital stay in Hong Kong, I found that female Chinese nurses were, well, let’s say “disturbed” by the sight of my manhood. Admittedly, it’s not a domestic model. 

But the unfortunate reality was that, as a result of all those drugs being poured into me, I had to pee several times an hour.  I was too weak to go to the loo, so at first I had little choice but to lie in bed and relieve myself into a urine bottle. Even the mere sight of that receptacle irritated the nurses, and they eventually stored it under my bed, out of my reach.  At one point I was relieving myself almost every ten minutes, and having to ask repeatedly for the bottle angered me. 

I finally managed to stand up on my own and perform the task vertically, which was a real relief. But a few seconds later I lost my balance and fell over, smashing a few glass containers on my way down. The very idea that I was paying through the nose for this “intensive care” enraged me, so I warned them: Transfer me to a standard hospital room the next day, or I’d walk out on my own.

I was in a bad state with a nasty head wound, three broken ribs, a punctured lung and a hand that might still have to be severed, they cautioned, so I was in no state to go anywhere.  

Nine o’clock rolled around the next day with no sign of a move. I stood up very awkwardly and painfully, and somehow managed to wobble out the door. The staff couldn’t believe their eyes. In the end they relented, and I was moved to what they labeled a “cadre room,” ostensibly reserved for officials. But as far as I could tell, it was simply a room for a single patient equipped with a TV and a washroom. 


“Could you change my bed sheets?” I asked the nurse the next morning. 

“What for?” 

“Well . . . if my hand gets infected, they’ll have to amputate it, understand? So I want to make sure my sheets are clean.”

“Mr. Xu,” she said using the Chinese family name I’ve used ever since I arrived in Taipei in 1978, “we change the sheets once a week. If your sheet gets dirty, we’ll change it.”  

“But you can’t ‘see’ germs,” I retorted. 

The following day the Head Nurse made her rounds. “Good morning, Mr. Xu,” she announced, accentuating my Chinese surname as if to imply I wasn’t qualified to use it. “I understand you requested that we change your bedding. Is everything fine now?”

“Yes, thank you. I appreciate it.”

The Head Nurse walked out the door, a queue of interns in tow. “Who does he think he is?” I overheard her say. “Expecting us to change his sheets daily!”


“Am I ever going to see a doctor?” I asked anxiously on the third day of my stay.  

“Of course,” said the nurse. “The surgeon who operated on you will come by this afternoon.” 

The day dragged on. Every few hours a nurse came in to hang a new bag of transparent glop on my drip. In between drifting in and out of consciousness I had learned to take the contraption along on frequent trips to my very own private toilet. At three o’clock in came a no-nonsense member of the staff who sat me up, took a firm hold of my injured hand and proceeded to unwind the bandage at a frightening speed. 

Wei!” I shouted, “What are you doing?!” It felt like she was slashing my palm all over again. 

“Shush! I’m just changing your dressing,” she said. “Don’t be a baby!”

Just when I was preparing to call for help to save me from this hellish orderly, she completed her task and marched out without a word. 

My nurse came back in. I hurt so bad I was almost speechless. “Isn’t my doctor coming today?” I whimpered.

“Don’t be silly. The one who changed your bandage just now — that’s your doctor.”

It must have been past midnight when the door flew open, the ceiling light lit up, and someone jacked up the mattress behind my head.  The mystery woman spread a newspaper on the sheet over my thighs, and plopped three styrofoam boxes on it. The scent of hot chilies permeated the room.

“Heard you like spicy Sichuan food. Eat up!” 

She handed me a pair of chopsticks and then I saw her face clearly: the brutal bandage-changer. My doctor!

“You’ve been in our hospital four days and still haven’t eaten a thing. How’s your hand ever going to heal like that?” 

Granted, I hadn’t ingested anything. But then, who eats the rubbish they dish up in hospitals anywhere?  This, however, was food. I dug in with delight.

As we chatted in putonghua, I got some insight into her earlier cool behavior. It all began the morning after my emergency operation. My boss, the publisher of a magazine under the Communist Party Propaganda Department of Shenzhen, kindly visited me the morning after my operation and brought along the head of the hospital. The hospital honcho then met with my doctor’s superior, who in turn instructed my doctor to “take extra special care of that lao wai.” 

My doctor, who happened to be one of the nation’s rare examples of an authentic Lei Feng — a semi-mythical PLA soldier and do-gooder vaunted by the state press as a model for all citizens — was deeply offended by this order to treat me preferentially. At the time, she had already transferred one patient out of her trauma ward just to free up a bed for me. But these instructions from above, combined with my lodging in a “cadre room” reserved for the elite, and the fuss I made over having my dressing changed, had persuaded her that I  wasn’t worthy of her 24/7 care.  

Happily for me, our chat that night broke the ice.  She revealed one reason why some emergency medical care is “delayed.” When the patient or relatives can’t pay upfront, the staff have to decide whether to go ahead on their own; if the patient is later unable to cough up the cash, the fee for the operation will be deducted — from the salaries of the doctors and nurses who perform it. 


As consultant to the publisher who dealt mainly with the man himself, I had never really gotten to know the editorial staff at the Chinese business magazine where I worked. But that changed almost overnight thanks to my twelve-day stay in the People’s Sickhouse. My boss made it known that staff should take turns at my bedside and deliver meals, and once I was out of danger, visit me daily to keep my spirits up.  This turned out to be a royal pain in the butt. 

Day after day my colleagues did their dutiful best to ensure I was never lonely.  They often arrived in pairs at noon toting two or three boxes of take-away. They’d spread the meal out on a table and encourage me to eat with a forceful “chi ba!” But I didn’t have much of an appetite, and I couldn’t handle chopsticks with my clumsy left hand.

“Why don’t you sit down and take lunch with me?” I asked as they hovered over me during a round of force-feeding.

“No need. We’ve already eaten.” 

Jeez. Very, uh, hospitable.

As the days went by, oranges piled up on a table near my bed. It was apparently obligatory to bring a gift of oranges to convalescing Mr. Xu, despite the fact that he never touched them.  Other well-intentioned but less familiar colleagues also showed up in my hospital room and, perhaps feeling uncomfortable due to my ghastly demeanor and disinclination to make small talk, they turned on the TV for my presumed entertainment. 

Now, I despise TV — haven’t watched it for 30 years — but my aversion was even greater then because the cacophony gave me a throbbing headache.  After ten days or so, I snapped when yet another well-wisher turned the boob tube on.

“Let’s make a deal,” I proposed through gritted teeth. “Why don’t you go home, sit down, turn the TV on, and make yourself comfortable,” I suggested amicably. “Then call me on the phone and we can chat.” 

Over the years, aspects of Chinese hospitality had occasionally proved difficult to handle.  In the hospital, however, I was a captive guest, virtually unable to decline unwanted attentions. This eventually became a source of real irritation. But then Jack Yang called.

A native of southwest China where Mandarin isn’t widely spoken, much of what Jack pronounced in editorial meetings sounded like babble to me. I suppose this made me question his mental capacities, and as such we were never on the best of terms.

“I’m going to visit you tonight,” he announced out of the blue. “What should I bring?” 

The thought of yet more citrus fruit to add to my pile didn’t appeal. I knew he had the key to my apartment, so I let fly: four pairs of my own underwear, three bottles of fruit juice with no added sugar, two English novels, and a few other items that would require trips to several stores. 

Jack came through with flying colors. I had many visitors at that Shenzhen hospital, but he was the only one who seemed truly mindful of what this hospitalized lao wai really needed.


“Won’t you be leaving soon, Mr. Xu?” my boss’s personal assistant, a mechanical personality and “Model Party Member” incarnate, asked during the last stretch of my hospital stay. 

“For where?” I queried. By that time, I hadn’t washed my hair for more than a week — the doctor wouldn’t allow it — and it was piled, dried blood and all, in a tangled mess atop my head. I’d have been taken for a madman on the streets of Shenzhen. 

“Back to your home country. I mean, you must be angry with us for what happened.” 

“Are they going to cancel my work visa?” I panicked. 

But that wasn’t what she meant. In fact, she wasn’t the only one who later offered a sincere apology on behalf of all her fellow countrymen for my having been knifed. I was touched, but I was also determined.  

“Do you see Nantian Towers over there?” I said, pointing to the series of wave-shaped blocks where I lived. “That’s my next destination.”

It had never occurred to me to leave China. I had been very happy in Shenzhen and it struck me as predictable that at some point I, like many others, would be randomly targeted by a robber here, the Street Crime Capital of China. Blame it on the  lack of a feeling of belonging, almost everyone was a migrant, and the Special Economic Zone’s own policies that spawned a “get-rich quick” mindset. 


I left the People’s Hospital with a right hand that was next to useless, hypersensitive to the slightest touch, and initially horribly scarred. But with the help of public hospital staff in Hong Kong and a miracle worker in Shenzhen, a beauty parlor masseuse who charged me just 20 yuan a session, over the next two years I would regain the ability to use my hand for things like grasping objects, typing on a computer, and thankfully, eating with chopsticks.

During the first six months of my convalescence, however, the blood-red wound on my palm was eye-catching and elicited comments every day. In particular, one characteristically Shenzhen conversation re-occurred countless times.

“What happened to you? Get robbed? Where at?”

“I was mugged right here, in Shenzhen,” I’d reply.

“Did they catch the guy?”


“How much did he steal from you?”

“Whatever cash he found on me, that’s nothing compared to this injury,” I’d assert. “You can see it’s my right hand that’s been hurt, and I’m right-handed.” 

“Oh.” A brief, awkward pause, inevitably followed by one more pointed query. 

“But, honestly speaking, how much did he get off you?” [终]

This real-life story was originally published in Unsavory Elements.

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