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Inside A Chinese Hospital: Are Those Trays Of Blood?

A tray of blood pushes me to the brink of cultural relativity.

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“Is that blood?” I asked the nurse sitting behind a counter that was covered in square white trays that were full of little pools of ominous looking red fluid.

“Yes,” she responded, as though it was absolutely normal for open samples of human blood to be placed all over the counter of a blood work lab in a hospital.

This is normal in China. These trays of blood are used for determining patients’ blood type. Blood type is very important in East Asian medicine. Everybody knows their blood type, and it is something that people actually talk about. Apparently, in order to get a health check in China you need to have your blood type confirmed, and the stacks of trays that were sitting in front of me were full of fresh samples. One misstep or errant movement here and I would have the hemoglobin of a dozen people all over me.


Right next to these white trays of blood was a rack of blood samples in vials. Right next to these vials was a cushion where I was being told to lay down my arm and roll up my sleeve. I needed to get a blood test in order to renew my residency permit, there was no way out other than leaving the country.

Read more on Vagabond Journey: The Experience of Getting a Medical Check For a Chinese Residency Permit

When you live outside of the country you were raised in you’re sometimes going to be put in situations that challenge your sense of etiquette, respect, cleanliness, or health. This is a given. If you keep traveling these personal challenges often become so easy to deal with that you hardly even notice them anymore. But every once in a while you see or experience something that cuts through your culture relativity and strikes the limit of your desire to adapt.

In my culture, blood is taboo. Really taboo. The very substance that pulsates life through our bodies is viewed as something that also brings death. Blood = disease.  We avoid other people’s blood perhaps more than anything else. We are afraid of blood. The reality that there is actually very little chance of getting a disease from having casual contact with another person’s sanguine fluid doesn’t really register here. This is culture, rationality is irrelevant.


So when I was told to lay out my arm 6 inches from a tray of other people’s blood to give a sample of my own. I had a choice to make: do I adapt, say what the hell, what the hell, and do it; or do I stand firm with the tidings of my own culture and make things difficult for everyone?

This is travel, you either adapt or go home. Tolerance means dealing with uncomfortable situations.

But this doesn’t mean allowing yourself or your sense of what is correct protocol to be violated. I chose the middle road. I expressed my feelings to the nurse in no uncertain terms and requested that she wear gloves and get me a new tourniquet — I just didn’t want the old rubber tube that was laying out on the counter with the open blood samples wrapped around my arm. She obliged my foreign preferences, and I gave my sample.

There is a different concept of infectious disease here in China. I can’t comprehend it. Medical practitioners seem to understand the rudiments of how disease is transferred between people, but when it comes to practice this understanding is often not fully put to use. Scientific concepts of medicine and disease here are superimposed upon traditional concepts, and the combining of the two often results in a very contradictory system of medical practice.

But this is the culture here. I either adapt or go home.

Now watch the video

Filed under: China, Culture and Society, Medical Care

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3706 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

4 comments… add one

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  • Hannah Shepard April 4, 2013, 10:15 am

    I was just thinking about this the other day when a boy in the kindergarten class I teach here in China got a nosebleed. My Chinese co-teacher simply helped him hold a tissue over his nose with her bare hand (no gloves) and then threw the bloody tissues in the trash can where they sat out all day in the corner of the class. When I was doing observations in a US public kindergarten and a kid got a nosebleed the entire class was moved outside the classroom, the nurse came, put on her gloves and wrapped everything up in a plastic bag to be immediately thrown away when she was done. It is different being in a country without a drastic fear of blood.

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    • VagabondJourney April 4, 2013, 9:40 pm

      What’s crazier:

      A culture that doesn’t seem to acknowledge infectious blood-borne disease or one that completely freaks out and goes into hysteria when a kid gets a nose bleed?

      I’m not sure.

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  • Steve - O April 4, 2013, 1:52 pm

    Maybe it’s because in China if you get any illness, all you have to do is drink some warm water and you’re good to go…. lol

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    • VagabondJourney April 4, 2013, 9:37 pm

      Yes, or just put on another layer of clothes 🙂

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