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“But don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything [Fred Astair] did ... backwards and in high heels.” (From a Frank and Ernest comic strip by Bob Thaves in 1982.)

If I am feeling down when I talk to Michael, he likes to remind me that living in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language is hard.

My husband is a wealth of encouragement, and I appreciate it.

“Very few people could do what you’re doing,” he likes to say.

But I always remind him that every immigrant at home is doing exactly what I’m doing — though of course many of them have a stronger command, or even a fluency, of English than I have of Chinese.

I’ve been here since mid-February, and I can still only say “hello.” I’m working on “thank-you,” but my student was dissatisfied with my pronunciation.

“It’s between a sh and a th sound,” he kept saying. And I tried again and again.

Now I have an even greater appreciation for immigrants in the U.S. who try to negotiate our medical system, since I had to visit the hospital a few days ago.

Spoiler Alert: I’m fine. I just needed to see a dentist. I put it off longer than I should have, thinking it was all in my head (joke courtesy of my own dentist at home). And I wasn’t sure how to proceed.

A couple of expat friends said they would give me the name of their own dentists, but it was a holiday weekend. I would have to figure out how to get myself to town. It all seemed too daunting. Is it any wonder I kept putting it off?

But by Sunday (Tomb Sweeping Day — a holiday here), I was really in pain and beginning to worry hard. I decided to go to the campus hospital, thinking a doctor might give me antibiotics to tide me over until I could see a dentist.

I sent a text downstairs to the front desk and asked directions to the hospital. (I usually text before I go down, since they can use the WeChat translator if they need to.)

But downstairs, the receptionist told me the campus hospital was “too small.” She wanted me to go to the big hospital in Haining, and I needed to “make an application.”

“How do I do that?” (I was trying really hard not to cry.)

After a lively phone conversation, she told me to go the Campus Service Center for help. What a relief!

A lovely young woman said that if I just wait until she ate her lunch, she would go with me. That gave me time to withdraw some money. I had no idea how much this trip would cost.

I still thought I was going to see a doctor, maybe at an ER, and I figured it would be expensive. But to my surprise, the initial visit (with an actual dentist, not an ER doctor) cost less than the cab ride to town (about $3).

The university takes really good care of me. Without my escort, I would have been lost. The hospital was huge and more like a clinic than an American hospital. The visit had a lot of steps but, in the end, was very efficient.

First, we had to pay the cashier for the visit. They told us to go to the third floor, where we found a bank of massage chairs to wait. Sadly, the chairs didn’t take cash, and I don’t yet have a Chinese bank account to use my phone to pay, so I missed the massage.

Still, they were cushy, which was good because we had to wait a while for my name to come up on the lighted board that reminded me of the departure boards at the airport.

But once it was my turn, everything went fast. The dentist examined me and sent me downstairs for X-rays. But first we had to pay again (about $10). Then back up to the dentist, who fixed me up and prescribed antibiotics. Then back to the cashier to pay again (the most expensive part at about $20).

All the while my guide helped me to the next station and translated patiently for me. And all I could think of was how impossible this would seem without her help.

And that’s when I realized that I’m an immigrant. A temporary one, yes, but still a stranger to this land. And now that I understand some of the difficulties of negotiating a different culture, I’m that much more impressed with people who do everything we do, but in a different culture.

And if I see someone who may be struggling with what seems to me an ordinary task, I’ll try to be helpful and friendly in appreciation of the Chinese girl who helped me through a difficult day.

Facilitate Beauty; Convey Peace; Blessed Be

Mary Lucille Hays is visiting China. You can see pictures about this week’s post on Instagram @BirdlandLetters. Mary can be reached at or via snail mail care of the Journal Republican, 118 E. Washington St., Monticello, IL 61856. She wants to thank her friends for writing and will answer you all soon.

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