When Yang Wei travels to C City for work, he expects nothing more than a standard business trip.
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from dystopian science fiction novel Hospital by Han Song, out from Amazon Crossing on March 1.
When Yang Wei travels to C City for work, he expects nothing more than a standard business trip. A break from his day-to-day routine, a good paycheck, a nice hotel—nothing too extravagant, of course. No fuss, but all the amenities.
But this is where his problems begin. A complimentary bottle of mineral water from the hotel minibar results in sudden and debilitating stomach pain, followed by unconsciousness. When he wakes three days later, things don’t improve; they get worse. With no explanation, the hotel forcibly sends him to a hospital for examination. There, he receives no diagnosis, no discharge date…just a diligent guide to the labyrinthine medical system he’s now circulating through.
Armed with nothing but his own confusion, Yang Wei travels deeper into the inner workings of the hospital and the secrets it’s hiding from the patients. As he seeks escape and answers, one man’s illness takes him on a quest through a corrupt system and his own troubled mind.
NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO, DON’T GET SICK
Whenever I went on business trips, I always tried to stay in the nicest hotels that my per diem allowed. I did it for comfort, to save face, and for all the bells and whistles those high-class hotels have to offer.
Thee hotel I booked in C City was part of an international chain. Inside, everything was bright and clean, with a postmodern style that appeared to be well up to standards.
After I checked in and went up to my room, I started to feel a bit thirsty, so I drank a bottle of the complementary mineral water that was provided in the room.
Shortly after that I began to experience a terrible stomach pain. I didn’t know what was causing it. Later the pain got even worse, and I collapsed on the bed and passed out. Who could have imagined that I would be out for three days and nights?
I awoke to discover two female hotel workers in gray suits standing beside my bed. I had no idea when they had arrived or how they had gotten into the room. Both women were around thirty-five years old; one had sharp features and a perm, the other had a round face and wore her hair in a ponytail.
When they noticed me waking, they explained, one word at a time, that they had received instructions from the manager at the reception desk to take me to the hospital. That sounded strange; how had they known that I was experiencing stomach pain? Remembering that I was here on business and still had official duties to take care of, I told them I didn’t want to go.
“That’s not an option,” the women responded in unison. “You are sick.”
As they reached to pull me out of bed, I explained, “I’m not sick. I just have a little stomachache. It’s nothing, really.”
They did not relent. “You are sick. You’ve been out for three full days.”
“How could you know that?”
“We work for the hotel. How could we not know that?”
“Is it really that serious?”
“It is a matter of grave consequence. No matter what, you must never get sick.”
Then I realized that something was really wrong. I might indeed be sick after all. “Okay, if I must go to the hospital, let’s go to one that will accept my insurance,” I suggested. “Otherwise I won’t be able to get reimbursed for my medical expenses!”
“Oh, come on, don’t worry about that!” the women responded. “We’ve already taken all of those details into consideration! It is our job to make sure that our customers are perfectly satisfied!”
They jumped into action and pulled me off the bed, then quickly dressed me and put on my shoes, their nimble hands suggesting that they had provided this type of service for hotel guests many times before. I felt like I had no choice but to follow their instructions. My main concern was making sure that I went to a hospital that would take my insurance. As long as I could get my hospital bill reimbursed, I was okay with the rest.
The hotel had already called an ambulance. Speeding through C City with its lights blazing and sirens screaming, the ambulance took the three of us to the hospital.
A PERSONAL SIDE GIG BECAME AN OFFICIAL BUSINESS TRIP
The mountain city was surrounded by rivers, a business hub with a robust population that supported a bustling tourist industry. The city was filled with tall ginkgo trees, and the architecture jutted out at steep angles, soaring into the sky like crescent blades defying gravity. And yet the city was always enveloped in a thick cloud of haze and smog, always cold and overcast, with a never-ending rain that left the air forever feeling sticky and humid.
I was in so much pain that I wasn’t in the mood to admire the scenery. I had come to C City on business, and all of my expenses were covered by Corporation B, which had hired me to compose a corporate theme song for them.
My day job was to serve as a government functionary in the capital, where I spent my days writing up reports and preparing speeches for my superiors. It was a good thing that I had a side job as a songwriter, a hobby that helped keep me distracted from my tedious nine-to-five job. My songwriting had earned me a bit of a name for myself. Occasionally I was invited to write songs for various companies, allowing me to earn some extra money and improve my living situation. That is why Corporation B had hired me.
My supervisors at my day job had a habit of monitoring my communications, so they had confiscated the letter that Corporation B sent me. After reviewing its contents, they decided to send me on a business trip to the same city on behalf of our department. Suddenly, what would have been a personal side gig became an official business trip. This wasn’t exactly a welcome change, but who cares? This kind of thing had been going on for so many years that I’d long grown accustomed to it. I just never imagined that as soon as I arrived in C City, I would fall ill.
Since we are on the subject of hospitals, I should mention that I was actually quite familiar with them. Just like the government agency that employed me, hospitals, too, are massive organizations. Moreover, they control the most fundamental facets of our lives: illness, aging, birth, and death. Here in my country, knowing your way around the hospital is the most fundamental quality for all citizens.
Stuck with a weak constitution and multiple ailments, I usually went to the hospital once every few days to pick up medicine. Ever since I was young, I had suffered from chronic insomnia, frequent headaches, endocrine imbalance, strange allergies, and constant exhaustion, and for some reason, I develop fevers and colds all the time. Like most everyone else, I hated going to the hospital, and yet I found myself strangely attracted to them. They pulled me in like a magnet. I couldn’t stop myself. However, this was the first time I’d had the pleasure of paying a visit to a hospital in C City. I figured that might not be bad. At least I would have the opportunity to familiarize myself with the place. I would be doing some songwriting here in C, so it would be a huge complication if any of my old ailments flared up while I was in town. So not a bad idea to acclimate myself to the hospital here. I’m certainly not the kind of person that likes to stir up unnecessary trouble.
The ambulance went up and down the hilly terrain, winding back and forth through the city. I couldn’t tell how long it finally took before we arrived at our destination. The hospital was built into the foot of a mountain overlooking the river, and like the rest of the city, it was a monumental site, a series of linked towers and pavilions and winding corridors with elaborate ornamental tiles projecting from the rooftops. Parts of the hospital, dark and imposing, seemed to curl up amid the rain and fog like a wild supernatural monster.
As if they were finally relieving themselves of a heavy burden, the women from the hotel who had accompanied me in the ambulance finally announced, “This is our city’s Central Hospital. If you are going to go to the hospital, you may as well go to the best! After all, Little Yang, you are one of our most esteemed guests!”
The women walked briskly, leading me straight to the emergency room entrance.
HOW CAN PEOPLE GO ON LIVING IF THEY CAN’ T PROVE THAT THEY ARE SICK
Based on my previous experience at various hospitals, it took only one look to realize that this hospital’s construction was really first rate. The main area for outpatient services featured high ceilings and a broad open-air hall, adorned with carved balustrades and marble tiles, like a universe unto itself with the overall layout mirroring the yin-yang meridian points. Hanging in the center of the hall was a horizontal sign, and in red characters against a green background, it read, Good Service, High Quality, and Top Medical Thics Make the Masses Happy. The other side of the sign read, Life Is Interdependent, We Entrust Others with Our Life, Together We Conquer Disease and Serve the People.
Then, from out of nowhere, a massive wave of metallic white light shone into the room, reflecting in all directions and raining down on several dozen lines of people that seemed to have no beginning and no end. When I realized that these must be the registration lines, I couldn’t help but express my admiration for how well organized they were.
The air inside the hall was thick and turbid. Almost immediately I began to get a prickly feeling in my throat. The faces of those lined-up patients looked blurry as they gradually moved like the flow of a great dark river. Some of them dragged suitcases; others carried small stools with them. Other groups of patients and family members continually linked up and merged with the primary stream of people, which occasionally led to some small disturbances. Meanwhile, every few steps on the shore was a guard post or a sentinel keeping watch. Security guards in raven-black uniforms with crimson armbands stood at attention, gazing at the crowds of people with piercing, fiery gazes, ensuring that a high degree of order and harmony was maintained.
Oh my, this was a scene I was only all too familiar with. When I saw this, my heart was immediately put at ease. It was at that moment that the women took my wallet from my pocket and rushed over to get in the registration line for me. My stomach pain started to worsen, and I curled up on a bench. The bench was littered with a dense mass of patients huddled together like flies, their moans converging into a constant buzz-like drone as if they were all trying to tell me, Thank goodness you made it here to the hospital in time. You could have died in that hotel, and no one would have ever even known.
It was only then that I was struck by a belated sense of fear. Our lives are, after all, of the utmost importance, and yet when I had first fallen ill, all I could think about was making sure I would get reimbursed for my hospital bills. But I suppose that is quite normal. Many people die not due to their illnesses but because they don’t have money to pay their medical bills.
The patients clustered around like they were late for a train. The reception hall had the appearance of a grand spiritual temple, and upon closer inspection it resembled the waiting room at a train station. The air was humid, fishy, stale with the smell of instant noodles, and the marble floors were littered with layer upon layer of what appeared to be a mixture of mud, rainwater, sweat, piss, phlegm, and vomit. Advertisements displayed taglines like Why Stand in Line? We’ll Take Care of Registration for You! Expedited Hospital Admission; Get All Your Tests Early! and Replacement Receipts: We Turn Your Out-of-Network Receipts into In-Network Receipts! The ads seemed at odds with the glorious exterior appearance of the hospital, but these days quite a few hospitals in this country are like this. I tried not to let any of that bother me. The meaning of a hospital does not rest upon those little details—what is important is keeping people alive.
Then, suddenly, a flatbed cart drove into the crowd. Two young men in dirty white jackets who looked like country bumpkins stood on top, waving a blackened soup spoon in the air and beating it on a large iron pot. They announced the sale of hot meals, including steamed stuffed buns, steamed bread, porridge, and pickled vegetables. The patients’ eyes lit up, and they immediately descended upon the cart from all directions, so anxious that they beat their chests and howled like a band of wild orangutans. The men selling the food yelled, “What are you screaming about? There’s plenty to go around!”
I started to drool and realized that it had been a full three days and nights since I had eaten anything. The fact that I wanted to eat something must have been a sign that I still had a good appetite, no? And didn’t having a good appetite prove that I wasn’t sick? And if I wasn’t sick, then what was I doing in the hospital? But if I hadn’t come to the hospital, how could I prove that I was not sick? And how can people go on living if they can’t prove that they are sick?
At this point I couldn’t help but laugh; humans are indeed greedy animals. But I would rather deal with the pain than deal with not eating. This wasn’t a hotel, it was a hospital. Based on my own experience, I knew that besides curing the sick, hospitals are also a place to suppress one’s desires.
After I had waited around for about an hour, the two women finally came skipping back to me, triumphantly waving my registration form like a signal flag. By then I didn’t even have the strength to get up. All I could do was greet them with a look of surprise.
HANDED MY LIFE OVER TO THE HOSPITAL
The women pulled me up and helped me over to the triage area. As it was my first time visiting a hospital in C City, I was quite bashful, like someone out on a first date who doesn’t know what move to make next. The women reacted with a combination of anger and humor, urging me, “Don’t be like that! We’ve all been patients before!”
I felt embarrassed. “Don’t worry, I’ll be okay.”
They started arguing about which of them would help me fetch my medical records. I hadn’t realized it, but they had a full copy of my records in the hospital’s underground storage facility. Something didn’t feel right about that. I had never been to this city, and this was the first time I had visited this hospital. How could they possibly have a copy of my medical records?
Then again, you can’t say that any of this was really out of the ordinary. The nation’s development had been moving ahead with startling speed, and things were changing every day. For a moment I thought that maybe every hospital under heaven had been successfully linked online, and they were all part of a massive franchise that would allow patients to use their insurance anywhere. This would have been great news to patients. Modern medicine may have had its origins in the West, but our country had made glorious strides in its development.
The women went off together to get my records, leaving me to settle down and continue observing the situation around me. The main hall in the waiting area was filled with people selling wreaths, fresh flowers, fruit, sewing supplies, exercise equipment, wheelchairs, cleaning materials, bedpans, bootleg books, clothing originally marked for export but later approved for domestic sale, expired cosmetics, urns, coffins, wigs, firecrackers, blankets, binoculars, compasses, flashlights, notebooks, New Year cards, fruit knives, kitchen knives, Buddhist prayer beads, statues of the Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva, nail clippers, used television sets, used radios… everything you could ever possibly need. An assortment of salespeople tried to recruit guests for local motels or tenants for their rental properties or even fortune-tellers. The outpatient area was like a big open-air market, filled with the rising and falling sounds of people shouting, haggling over prices, crying, crashing into things, spitting, coughing, wheezing, dragging their feet, utensils clanging, metal clinking and clattering, clicking, voices babbling.
It was quite a moving scene, all the people waiting to be treated. The number of elderly patients really grabbed my attention. I supposed the news reports were right: our country had truly become an aging society. I have no doubt that this stressed the hospital system, but it had also provided a robust flow of new patients. The look on the elderly patients’ faces told of an abyss of deep loneliness; facing the ear-shattering noise in the hall, they looked calm and composed, as if they didn’t even hear the chaos around them. Many sat on benches wrapped in old army coats with their heads erect. Their bodies emitted the smell of muscle-pain relief gel, kidney stone elixir, and dust, creating an interesting aesthetic contrast with the lively merchants and salespeople in the hall. Some of these patients already had cobwebs forming in their underarms and crotches, and yet they still sat there, firm and still like unmoving mountains, their bloated hands tightly clenching their tattered and rotting medical records.
After observing those elderly patients for a while, I had a much better idea of what was going on. Reflecting on the fact that this was my first visit to C City’s hospital, I decided I should commemorate the moment, so I pulled out my cell phone and took a photo, thinking that it might turn out to be a useful source of inspiration for a future songwriting project.
Several security guards immediately rushed over to me. Grabbing my collar, they screamed at me, demanding to know my intention in taking the photo. I’d been in many situations like this, and I tried to explain, but they raised their fists, threatening to hit me, and instead demanded that I delete the photo immediately. I wanted to ask them, What right do you have to force me to delete it? What law have I broken? Did you post a No Photography Allowed sign somewhere? But then I realized that since I was here as a patient, I had basically handed my life over to the hospital. I decided it was best not to act rashly, so I deleted the photo like a good boy. It didn’t matter much anyway; this is just another thing you get used to when you go to the hospital.
The security guards walked away, cursing under their breath. But this little interlude made my stomach hurt even more, and the women still hadn’t returned yet. I couldn’t take it anymore. The other patients were staring at me. Ashamed, I struggled to my feet and made my way forward through the crowd.
The hospital corridors extended in all directions, winding around like serpents that had no end. Only occasionally did I catch a glimpse of what looked like a completely different world. A lot of patients were lost, collapsed from exhaustion, or simply passed out on the floor. I staggered down the corridors for what felt like forever before finally coming to a doctor’s examination room. A series of vivid red-and-purple photographs hung on the wall, adding brightness to the dull gray and white that dominated the rest of the hospital. The first photo was of a stomach. It was mostly black but had a series of red ulcers growing on it. Another photo depicted a pale white esophagus, but on the outer membranes were a series of meaty, pearl-like growths and something that was bluish green and shaped like a cauliflower. Explanatory text declared this cancer of the duodenum. I felt like I was back in the capital, at one of those fancy avant-garde art galleries.
I realized I must be in the gastroenterology department in the internal medicine ward. Outside the door of the examination room, a huge crowd of patients waited anxiously to get in. Some even got into fights about who would go in next. I took a few seconds to observe the situation before shoving the patients aside and forcing my way to the front of the line, where I pushed the door open and entered. The crowd was angry, staring at me with hateful eyes, yet they remained silent, probably wondering what kind of special relationship I might have with the doctor. My many years of experience as a patient had paid off, and I finally had my chance to be seen first.
Excerpted from Hospital, copyright © 2023 by Han Song.