Chinese Pharmacy Adventures

by Ava Ming: My Oriental Life 

One of Those Days

When I woke up this morning I wasn’t feeling too bright. An ache in the wrong place, feeling a little bit stiff. Nothing too serious, just under the weather. Luckily for me, I live in China, a country replete with well stocked pharmacies in every community.

First Time for Everything

I picked up my Chinese/English dictionary, phoned my Chinese friend and asked her to be on standby for translating any phrases not supplied in the lexicon. Then I got ready to go. I say ‘got ready to go’ because it’s important to note that as well as the aches, or maybe because of the aches, I’d also woken up with a swollen eyelid preventing me from fully opening my right eye (Quasimodo anyone?) and a huge bumpy thing underneath my left eye, so I was far from my usual vision of morning loveliness.

It took me about five minutes to dig out my sunglasses. Despite the fact that it was a cloudy day I didn’t want to be the neighbourhood ‘Waigouren’ (foreigner) frightening small children with my weird looking eyes.

Appearances Really Do Count

A short walk away I entered my local pharmacy, nodded hello to the pharmacist and took my sunglasses off slowly so that I wouldn’t scare her.

It almost worked.

Her initial reaction was a sharp intake of breath, followed by a slow sympathetic shake of her head. She’s a nice lady, gentle with a motherly presence. She began speaking but stopped at my look of confusion. Her speech was just too fast with too many new medical words for me to handle. Signaling for her to wait a moment, I called my bi-lingual Chinese friend, giving the phone to the pharmacist who repeated her questions.

Items in a Chinese Pharmacy

Roll Up Roll Up

In the meantime, a tiny but deliberate crowd (they do say that three’s a crowd right?) gathered. First to saunter in was the community Security Guard whose opening words were; ‘how can the foreigner understand?’ A phrase I hear almost every day. He was obviously curious to see how I would make out in the pharmacy where 98% of the products were labelled in Chinese with non-English speaking staff. He made himself comfortable on the chair next to the counter, inches away from my elbow, a ringside seat. A minute or so later, as the pharmacist was still questioning my friend while examining facial disfigurements, the lady from the roadside fruit stall walked in, a look of open curiosity leading her towards us. She made a comment to no-one in particular, I’ve no idea what it was and took up her position leaning against the doorframe where she clearly focused on me. Another ringside seat.

It’s Good to Talk

During the next ten minutes as a three way conversation took place between me, my Chinese friend and the pharmacist, another woman casually came in and stood less than two feet away. By now I was thinking maybe I should sell tickets. Why these three were so interested so is anyone’s guess. Boredom? Curiosity? Wanting something to talk about at dinner that evening? Who knows?

Despite the fact that I looked totally un-pretty, I wasn’t bothered by my audience. It actually added some humor, subduing my discomfort. Besides, I was more concerned with ensuring the pharmacist sourced and provided me with appropriate relief.

Fifteen minutes later when it was all over, I expressed grateful thanks in Chinese, causing my audience to laugh out loud, luckily I’m used to that.

Chinese Medicinal Creams

For You To Bear In Mind

Whenever you buy any medication take a picture of the packaging with your phone so the next time you need a top up, or something similar, you can show this to the pharmacist.

Fakes Abound

Ask your Chinese friends or colleagues to recommend reputable pharmacies. Each neighborhood has several, but in some cases the products are fake and could potentially be damaging. Chinese English language newspapers report which branches have recently been busted for selling substandard medicines.

Part of the Culture

Don’t worry if you gain an audience like I did. Chinese people just like to gather. Once I joined a large, friendly group amassing on the street, smiling at thin air for five minutes until I realized that absolutely nothing was going on and went on my way. I


Sometimes the pharmacy will offer you traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in conjunction with western style medication. This could result in you having to buy and then ingest a lot of stuff. TCM is also considerably more expensive. It’s okay to say no if you’re not interested.

The mark-up on medicines is not very high so in the case that you’re looking for cold relief for example, you could be advised that you’ll need something for the cough, something else for a runny nose, another medicine for your headache, something different for your sore throat and so on. Again, it’s okay to just take the one that you want or ask for something which offers all in one.

It’s normal for one of the pharmacists to follow you around the store pointing out special offers. The polite response is ‘bu yao,’ which means ‘Don’t want,’ after which they generally leave you alone.

Final Thoughts

Westerners can be anxious about Chinese medicine but in fact Chinese pharmacies are a one stop shop for many things which can only be obtained by prescription in the west, Asthma inhalers for example. In addition many pharmacists will take time out to deal properly with your problem ultimately saving you a time consuming and expensive trip to the doctor.

Oh and the good news is my eyes are fine now.




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