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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Strube

for all the tea in…

Undoubtably, everyone gets sick in China.

And when you get sick in China, you go to the Chinese pharmacy.

And when you are at the Chinese pharmacy, you play charades.

It was my first case of the Welcome to the Far East flu. I am told everyone gets sick upon their entry to the Middle Kingdom. It’s a winter welcoming packet direct from the passport controls itself. 

Welcome to our country. Please buy yourself a face mask.

Thankfully, I live across the street from a pharmacy. I think this is also part of the intentioned plan of the Universe to cleanse me of all things Western, including my own language. Since my arrival here, I’m spitting up horrible gobs of bad English more than I am my own phlegm. It’s not intentional. I do mean to learn Mandarin, but medical Mandarin was not at the top of my list. I was more hoping to tackle friendly conversational phrases like “How are you and how is your family?” When I realized that even my musically trained ear had problems differentiating between the subtle tones of “thank you,” I knew I was in for trouble translating my complex multi-symptoms of the slogging flu.

(Yes, that’s right. You get the vocal intonations wrong for thank you, and you are saying squid. Twice.)

Just when I was wondering how many cab drivers I thought I had thanked and instead blessed with benedictions of double octoapai, I entered the pharmacy carrying multiple amounts of tissues.


“Ninhao ma.”

“I sick. Headache. Cough. Fever.” 

Blank stares.

This was my first mistake. I have this terrible habit in foreign countries of speaking my own language without articles or verbs. The anthropologist in me scolds myself each time: (a) for not already knowing the local dialect and (b) for suddenly speaking my own like a paralyzed kindergardner. The inner yogi in me that gives grace to all things in myself says, be kind, you’ve only been here a week. I opt to listen to her. She’s much nicer.

But when the locals don’t understand me the first time, the good yogi gets run over by the Proletariat in me. She finds reason to repeat my bad English, as though the second time around it will sound more authentic.

Headache. Cough. Fever. (And this time much louder and slower).

Blank stares.

At this point, I should stop, return home with my tissues, and grab my Chinese for Dummies book. But no. Instead, some inner impulsedecides to dig deep into my soul and play charades. My hands cup the sides of my head, my knees bend, and I start to pulse and shiver. When more blank stares ensue, the pulsing becomes louder and more fervent. The blank stares turn to raised eyebrows as, for all intensive purposes, I appear shot with a stun gun, ready to break down into anaphalactic shock.

Can someone call the medi-vac please?

But at least a get a response. A response I can’t understand, other than the universal head nod and scurry, where she returns with a white box of medicine. With lots of beautifully written Chinese words that I can’t understand. The pharmacist’s eyes, darker than a deep steeped cup of tea, lock with mine and smile. I smile back. I have successfully proven I am sick.

And have no idea what I am taking.

Just to verify, I repeat my symptoms in English and the pharmacist pushes the packet of herbs and goodies closer my way. She then shows me the calculator. 18 RMB, or roughly 3 US dollars. 

When I was little, my mother was a stickler on prescription packets. We had to read the dosage before every swallow, just to make sure we got it right. It’s the only directions I follow in life. But I can’t read Chinese art on a packet. Not yet. 

I stare at her. She stares back and then opens her mouth. “Take one in the morning and one in the evening,” she says.

Did I just hear her speak English? 

“One in morning and one in evening?” I repeat.

Blank stare.

“Thank you,” I say. Blank stare again. “Xie Xie,” I say. Thank you in Mandarin…

Or maybe I’m just a squid. 

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