It could have been worse.

It could have been a lot worse.

Despite our attempts to complete all of the requirements to obtain our Chinese z-visa (the one that allows you to live and work in the country long-term) before we moved to China, we were informed shortly after our arrival that we would need to undergo a physical examination in China. Although we received physical exams before we left the United States, those results would not apply toward our visa application after all.


We had been cautioned to expect a different experience than what we were accustomed to in the United States. Efficient, is how the process was described.

Now let me just preface this post by saying that our experience in China has been fabulous so far. We have yet to experience a more fun-loving and hospitable culture in all our travels. The Chinese have gone above and beyond to ensure both our safety and comfort during our entire stay.

Nonetheless, we were not looking forward to undergoing a medical examination in any country other than our own.

But in this case, we didn’t really have a choice.

Our driver picked us up from the hotel early that morning and we quickly made our way toward downtown Tianjin, hoping to beat the morning traffic, a complicated dance between cars, motorbikes, bicycles, and pedestrians, all vying for a position on the same road, in the same lane. (Check it out, here!)

We turned down a beautiful tree-lined side street with a gray, Soviet-looking building on the right. Out of its doors poured dozens of Chinese youth dressed in bright green military fatigues.

“New recruits?” I asked Justin.

“Must be. Wonder what they’re waiting for?” he replied.

Our driver pulled into a tight space on the left, motioning for us to sit tight while he went down the street to meet another guy (side note: we had no idea what was happening or who any of these people were).

“Perhaps this is some sort of official state military headquarters?” I wondered. We continued to stare in curiosity at the cadets as they played on their iPhones and teased one another while waiting in line.

We weren't quite sure what to think when we pulled up to a long line of Chinese army cadets.

We weren’t quite sure what to think when we pulled up to a long line of Chinese army cadets.

Photo credit

After about ten minutes, our driver returned with two other people, one of whom we recognized from Justin’s company. They handed us each a form to fill out, documenting our entire medical history and motioned toward the building with the cadets spilling out the door. They left, and went to hold us a place in line.

Great. The cadets were also waiting to get physicals.

We completed our forms and waited nervously in the car. How long would we have to be here? What would the exam involve? Oh, I wish there weren’t so many people around!

As we were lost in our cacaphony of fearful thoughts, a military hum-vee charged around the corner. “Oh, good! A military truck!” Justin exclaimed. “Maybe they’re here to pick up the cadets!”  The truck stopped abruptly in front of us, dropped its tailgate, and several dozen more cadets piled out and fell in line behind their comrades on the sidewalk.  “Guess not.”

“Oh well, it’s only a few dozen,” we thought. We can handle that.

Finally our chaperones reached the front of the line and motioned for us to join them inside. We filed out of the van and prepared to accept our fate.

That’s when we found, to our horror, there were about 200 more cadets waiting in line inside! This was going to take forever!

The building was hot (like most buildings in China) with long, green hallways, and the body heat produced from 200+ 18-year-old army recruits certainly did not offer a cooling effect. We were handed our medical history sheets, along with a separate sheet containing a checklist of the various procedures we were to have.

We began to make our way to the first of six examination rooms, waiting patiently in line behind the sweaty cadets.

The first room was pretty straight forward. A routine blood pressure check and weigh-in. The only difference from back home was that we had about ten Chinese cadets in the room with us watching. Fortunately, it really seems as though no one else cares and that such a procedure is anything but private for them.

The rest of the exam rooms were similar, with other patients waiting in the room along with you. This really didn’t bother us much as neither of us are very self-conscious about our medical history or stats. In cases where increased privacy was desirable (such as the EKG heart test), they did draw a curtain for me since I’m a girl and allowed Justin to stay.

But then we were ushered into the x-ray room …

We walked into the room with a group of cadets and our female chaperone from Justin’s company. The x-ray machine operator spouted off a series of instructions as to how we were to operate the equipment. All of the instructions were given in Mandarin (though were surprisingly clear) except for the command directed toward me to “Take out the bra! Take out the bra!” It wasn’t entirely obvious when exactly I was supposed to do that since the room was still full of people. Fortunately, years of awkward moments in junior high gym class made me a master at removing my bra with no one seeing anything. Convinced this was my only option and not wanting to learn the consequences of failure to comply, I got down to business.

“You are NOT taking your bra off in here!” Justin quipped.

“Well where am I supposed to do it? This seems urgent!”

He pulled me into the x-ray machine operators little control room. “You can do it here, this should work,” he said.

“There’s a glass window.” I observed, still trying to wriggle out of my bra.

“Take out the bra! Take out the bra!” we continued to hear in the background.

Exasperated, Justin continued to look for an acceptable solution. Noticing our concern, our chaperone motioned me out of the room and took me into a supply room where I could finish my task in private.

After our chest x-ray, there remained only one task left to complete: the dreaded urine sample.

Following our blood sample, they had taped a small plastic cup to our sheet. This was to be used to collect our specimen. It is impossible to describe the inadequacy of this container. It was just slightly larger in diameter than a U.S. quarter and made of flimsy plastic.

Oh, and it had no lid. No lid!

This is the type of container we would have expected to use for our urine sample ...

This is the type of container we would have expected to use for our urine sample …

Photo credit

We handed our medical sheet to our chaperone, wished each other luck, and headed off to take care of business.

I was faced with the challenging task of aiming into such a small, shallow container while also balancing myself over a “squatty potty” (a toilet in the ground that you squat over) in a stall with black walls.  Although it was difficult to see my target, somehow, I managed to successfully complete my duties and set my cup down in front of me to finish taking care of business. Suddenly, to my horror, I looked up to see liquid flowing all over the floor in front of me. I panicked! Did I knock over my cup?! I strained my eyes in the dark stall and determined no, it was still upright. So where was the liquid coming from?!

“There’s a hole in my pee cup!” I realized in horror.

Pee was flowing everywhere! Thinking quickly, I removed my toilet tissues from their plastic package and set my cup in there. I quickly pulled up my pants and rushed out of the bathroom to turn in my sample before it all drained out!

For those who have never had the privilege, this is what a squatty potty looks like.

For those who have never had the privilege, this is what a squatty potty looks like.

Photo credit

I nudged my way through the crowded hallway of cadets to the specimen collection window. I pushed my way past them with my open cup, guarding it with one hand, holding it in the other, and, exasperated, I dropped my cup at the collection window.

The attendant blinked confusedly at my empty cup sitting in plastic wrap.

“My cup — it’s leaking! It’s leaking!” I exclaimed.

“Your sheeeeeeeet! Your sheeeeeet!” she demanded.

“Yes, yes, I know, but it has a hole! It has a hole!” I reiterated, pushing the specimen closer toward her hoping she would siphon it out with the little pipet they’re using to collect the samples.  She persisted, refusing to accept my urine specimen until it was accompanied by my medical checklist.

“Ok, ok, fine!” I relented. “I’ll go get my sheet,” I agreed, motioning that I need to go down the hallway to retrieve it from our chaperone who held all our belongings to free our hands for the task at hand.

The woman at the counter reluctantly began to siphon what tiny amount remained of my urine as I turned to retrieve my sheet, still surrounded shoulder-to-shoulder by the cadets. As I turned to go, I failed to notice in my rush that at my feet sat a small trash can overflowing — overflowing! — with discarded, uncovered urine samples from today’s hundreds of patients.

I literally stopped within one inch of knocking the entire pile over, grabbing hold of a random cadet’s shoulder to stop my fall.

I returned quickly with my sheet, which appeared to finally satisfy the attendant. She placed a check next to the box marked “Specimen Sample” and handed me the remains to discard.

I carefully balanced my waste atop the mountain of pee cups spilling out of the ill-placed trashed can.

Humiliated, I made my way down the hallway and toward the exit as inconspicuously as possible. I grabbed Justin, who was waiting for me at the end of the hallway, completely oblivious to my latest adventure, and whisked him out the door to our waiting van.

On that disastrous note, it was time for us to put our first — and hopefully last — Chinese medical exam behind us and find the nearest bottle of hand sanitizer!


Have you ever had a medical exam or procedure in a country other than your own? What was your experience like?