12 November ’18
Chinese people have a vast array of four character expressions that are very similar to our idioms in English. The literal translation of 水土不服 (shuitubufu) is “the earth and water are not familiar”, and the meaning of this idiom (they are called 成语, chengyu) is “being unaccustomed to one’s environment”. It is also an officially diagnosable cause of illness in traditional Chinese medicine.
Seemingly every person that had ever been to China that I spoke to about my upcoming trip needed to warn me about the water. “Oh don’t ever drink the tap water.” “You know about the water right?” “Only use bottled water - even for brushing your teeth.” “The tap water isn’t like in American - you can’t drink it.” “Make sure to boil water before you use it for anything.”
I heeded the advice. The first thing I bought after I checked into the hotel was bottled water (and toilet paper as it’s not provided). I only used bottle water to brush my teeth and rinse my mouth. Everyday I
stole stockpiled bottles of water from Microsoft and brought them back to the apartment.
And yet, in the evening my ninth day, I developed a sore throat. Due to my excessive precautions I went to bed convinced that it was not possible for me to be sick. In the morning my throat stubbornly continued to be irritated. Probably allergies I thought. I went in to work and made myself a cup of tea to soothe my symptoms. Lunch time arrived and I ate a small lunch as my stomach wasn’t feeling too well. After lunch I went back to my computer and found that the words wouldn’t come into focus quite right. I put my hand to my forehead - it was burning. I finally accepted the reality that I had fallen ill. But I had a meeting at three, so I forged onward. The meeting started a little late and dragged on for two hours as a postdoc explained his research to some big important Microsoft guys. My eyes glazed over as terms I didn’t understand rushed past. I took notes that became more and more confused, my brain limping forward. The door was closed and the room became a dry sauna, the tempurature probably keeping pace with my internal tempurature. When it finally ended due to a dinner reservation (which us lowly interns were not invited to) I went to the bathroom and washed my feverish face with cool water. I had a light dinner with the other interns, then hightailed it home, crawling into bed around 8.
As whatever I had continued to wreak havoc on my body I tossed and turned, unable to fall asleep. I could feel the weight of the entirety of my previous existence stacked on top of me, day by day by day, climbing into the sky. There was so much of my live I had already lived. How could it be possible that there was so much more?
I dreamed that my sickness was controlled by an XML document and that I was fighting it off by manipulating the XML tree with my bare hands.
I awoke, the room dark, cold, and silent, convinced my fever had broken. I could feel the world crystallizing around me and was acutely aware that movement would shatter the stillness of the moment. I checked my watch in a daze. 2:20.
I awoke again at 9. “I can go in to work today right?” I thought to myself. I got up, stumbled to the bathroom and brushed my teeth. As I turned to leave my vision went black and I grabbed the wall to keep from passing out. I collapsed back in bed and sent an email to my mentor telling him to give all my work to the other intern. My roommate offered me his thermometer. 38°C (100°F).
A day of rest, two meals of soup, a nap, a night of sleep, and my fever was gone. I returned to work on Friday triumphant - arrogant. I had survived the first round. Is that all you’ve got China? Bring it on 😎