Lao Bi: A "Made in Shanghai" surgeon from Nepal

Wang Haoling
Birendra is proud of his identity as a "Made in Shanghai" surgeon. He married a local woman – she says he's not a good cook – and is father of a baby girl with Shanghainese hukou.
Wang Haoling

Holin’s words:

Being a doctor in Shanghai is hectic. I set a Tuesday afternoon appointment to interview Doctor Birendra, or Doctor Bi Renda, his Chinese name, two weeks prior, but I suddenly received a postponement message when I was almost at his hospital. He had to do an urgent surgical operation, and in the end we had to meet twice to even finish our chat.

But being a doctor in Shanghai is not as busy as you might think, he says. Lao Bi, the nickname his friends came up with, will tell you: “Of course I still have leisure time!” He likes to go to parks or cinemas with his Shanghainese wife who is also a doctor in the same hospital. He often makes traditional Nepalese food for his loving family, and he also will dine out together with his friends in Shanghai when he gets a chance.

Lao Bi always speaks of himself as a Chinese doctor, or a “made-in-Shanghai" doctor. “I work with a Chinese license,” he told me proudly.

After coming to Shanghai 18 years ago, Lao Bi began to learn medical science at Jiao Tong University, and then he was an intern and worked at Shanghai Ruijin Hospital. After 15 years’ working experience and a whole lot of effort he is now an attending surgeon specialized for stomach cancer, and has been for five years.

Now, every Tuesday afternoon, Lao Bi will sit waiting for patients at the outpatient department on Ruijin Road. Usually he manages to examine around 100 patients on the average day.

Lao Bi: A Made in Shanghai surgeon from Nepal
Holin Wang / SHINE

Lao Bi poses for the camera during our first interview, then he rushed off to do a surgery.

Name: Birendra Kumar Sah

Nationality: Nepali

Job: Doctor

Years in Shanghai: 18

Holin: What do you usually do on your weekends in Shanghai?

Birendra: Actually, there is no weekend for doctors. But every doctor will have leisure time if you are not on duty. Of course, my free time is not fixed.

When I am free, I prefer to go out with my wife, if she wants to go out as well, rather than just going somewhere alone. For example we will hang out around the park or go to see a movie. You know, our kid is too young to see films, so now we don't go to the cinema very often. If we still want to go out, we will go someplace nearby, or organize some kid’s activities with our colleagues’ children.

Before we had a child, or maybe even earlier, before I met my wife, I didn't go out very often either. I’m kind of a homebody. I always stay at hospital on the weekends because I love my job. You know, there are not so many doctors on weekends. I feel more fulfilled because most of my decisions can be implemented. For example, I thought one patient could take medicine one day, and I could decide it. I felt that all the knowledge I learned before could be utilized in some way. But on the weekdays, I can't do things like this because I need to ask my leaders. Moreover, we are surgeons, and it will be helpful if we could treat more patients. That’s why I like to stay at hospital on weekends.

In addition, if I have time on weekends, I will cook. I am good at cooking, even though my wife doesn’t think so, since we have different tastes. My wife is also a doctor. She doesn't like cooking, like most Shanghainese, and of course we don’t say who must cook. If we are both busy, we will chose to eat at hospital. In my mind, we should not force one another to cook. If I feel tired, my lover maybe feels more tired than me, as woman have less strength than men. My point is if you want, you can do it; if not, we can order a take-out. It is very convenient in Shanghai with so many choices.

Lao Bi: A Made in Shanghai surgeon from Nepal
Ti Gong

Lao Bi and his Shanghainese wife hold their one-year-old boy.

Holin: Which place in Shanghai do you like best?

Birendra: I love Fuxing Park. First of all, Fuxing Park is close to the place I work, Ruijin Hospital, so I can walk there. It's an old park, and there are many middle-age people singing together and it offers several activities sometimes. Secondly, there is no need to pay an entrance fee since it's free. Thirdly, Fuxing Park is quite big, and it has a long history.

I won’t go someplace far away on purpose. I just go to Century Park to see the fire shows sometimes, and I don’t like to go to pubs.

Holin: Which road do you like best here? 

Birendra: This answer will never change: It is Huaihai Road – the part from Sinan Road to Yandang Road.

It was a popular area when I first came here many years ago. There was an Isetan Department Store, plus a four-story bell tower, maybe called “Times Square” if I remember correctly. You can have fun there; have delicious food and do some shopping… everything can be found in that area. The Hong Kong Plaza hadn't been established at that time. Only the Pacific Plaza standing there, we would go to that area to buy some clothes.

Apart from being popular, the other reason I love this area is because of its unique features. For example, there are many watch stores selling classic watches, and it makes you feel that it is an elegant place to go.

Another point is that you can go to Fuxing Park directly through Yan Dang Road. I think it is a nice area to go, and there are a lot of nice small shops on both sides of the road where you can sit down and drink some beers with your friends. It’s very Westernized and casual.

And there are a lot of stories about Sinan Road, including the former residence of Dr. Sun Yat Sen and several museums. Even though Sinan Mansions hadn’t been built at that time, the road still looked beautiful and peaceful. Of course I love to go there because it is near my place.

Lao Bi: A Made in Shanghai surgeon from Nepal
Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Nepali doctor Birendra Kumar Sah (center) at work in Shanghai’s Ruijin Hospital

Holin: And what do you love in Shanghai?

Birendra: From the perspective of the city, I never thought that I would stay here in the very beginning. Originally, I thought I would go back to Nepal when I graduated from college. Why did I stay here in the end? It was a pretty natural process.

After I graduated, I still wanted to learn something more. You know, there are many patients in China, while in Nepal, the situation is different. Maybe there are only ten gastric cancer patients in Nepal each year while there are 30 patients in Shanghai each week — like 100 times more. So I thought it was better to stay here. After staying here, I got used to it and I feel good about working here.

I like the pace of Shanghai. I love the fast-paced life. I don’t like the slower pace of life like the European style. For example, most of the shopping malls in Europe will be closed around 4 to 5pm every day, but in Shanghai you can have fun even up until midnight. There is no good or bad, but different choices. I can confirm that I don’t like that lifestyle, I enjoy living in Shanghai.

As for interpersonal relationships, I am not a social person. But I have a lot of friends. If I have time and I am in Shanghai, my friends will call me and ask me to go out. If you have time, come and have a meal with me, it doesn’t matter who treats.

Holin: Then what do you hate in Shanghai?

Birendra: Nothing. If so, just something everybody dislikes, such as people crossing the street randomly, quarrelling... nobody likes these things.

I think every city in the world has its favorable and unfavorable aspects. I have lived here for almost 20 years and I am used to living here, so there is nothing I dislike.

Just one point I want to mention, for most foreigners they don’t like being stared at. Sometimes such action will lead to quarrels, especially in the Western world. I realized people normally stare in narrow places such as on a crowded subway or bus in Shanghai. I am not sure if that's because I am a foreigner or not.

According to my observation, I found that the people most likely to stare at you are middle-aged people, especially old ladies. I am not discriminating against a certain age or sex group, that's just my observation.

If I find some people looking at me straight in the eyes, I will often have two reactions: one is just to smile, since I don't want to make it too awkward. Or sometimes, I will smile at them, and they will also smile at me at the same time. The other way is staring back at them.

But I never say anything because I am afraid that someone might ask me a series of questions such as: “Where are you from? Can you speak Chinese? What's your job…” It would be very annoying.

Lao Bi: A Made in Shanghai surgeon from Nepal
Holin Wang / SHINE

After finishing one surgery, Lao Bi poses for the camera during our first interview, before rushing off to do a second one. 

Holin: Compared to your country or cities you had lived in for a long time, are there any shortages in Shanghai? Any solutions for Shanghai to borrow from?

Birendra: If there was a special phone service for foreigners only that would be better.

For example, a foreigner comes to Shanghai. Now imagine there is a convenient phone number that serves them no matter what language he or she speaks. Of course it should cover multiple languages at least. Simplify this telephone number, such as “110.”

For example in the US, “911” covers almost everything including medical and security problems. We can shunt the phone number, and guarantee not to obstruct other services. Or, at least, tell foreigners how to solve the problems they are facing, like where to find somebody who can help. This is my idea.

I've heard that in France, there is a kind of medical cruiser patrolling the streets. If they find some people like old ladies who have stomachache, they will bring them to hospital immediately. Our service here still has a long way to go. In my mind, you should enhance your service awareness, which I think is very important.

Holin: Could you share a memory from your life that really impressed on you?

Birendra: The thing that impressed me most was joining in the relief work after the Nepal earthquake in 2015. We went to Nepal with the team from the Chinese Red Cross Foundation four days after the earthquake while aftershocks were still occurring all the time. We went to Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal. The medical condition and the destruction of homes there was better than other places, so we found that there was not so much that we could do.

Altogether 18 doctors were sent to Nepal at that time, including me. Originally I wasn't on the list being sent there. Immediately after the earthquake, I contacted my supervisor Professor Zhu Zhenggang, who was also the director of our hospital, and told him I really wanted to join the relief effort. He helped me to contact with Red Cross and told them a Nepalese doctor wanted to come with them. Finally they agreed.

Why do I want to go? The Vice Prime Minister of Nepal at that time, who was also the vice-chairman of the Nepal Communist party, was the father of one of my best friends. So I can help them not only in medical treatment but also in governmental coordination. After the discussion of our team, we decided to go to the epicenter. However, it was not so easy to be there, a lot of problems needed to be solved.

I went to meet the Vice Prime Minister, and asked him whether he could arrange a helicopter for us to get there. After assessing the situation, we went there. But the weather was very hot, nearly 35℃ to 40℃, and there was no air-conditioning in the car. We wore troop clothes because we had to put many things into the clothes like the radio, mobile power supplies and medical supplies — very heavy. That was the sixth or seventh day after the earthquake when we got there. When we arrived there, there was only a health station with an intern doctor who had just graduated from college, and two or three nurses, as well as several other staff. We were needed, because there was no road towards that village, and it was hard to be reached. We left a lot of medical equipment with Nepal Red Cross before we left, including B ultrasound diagnostic sets and electrocardiographs.

We served there for six to seven days until the second group arrived. We treated more than 100 patients every day in every tent where two to three doctors worked. Most patients we treated had surgical problems or wound infection problems, or thoracic oppressions. Moreover, some patients with chronic diseases came and looked for some medical treatments because they knew we were here. Of course, we also offered them consulting services within the scope of our ability.

We also offered psychological comfort, which was very important. After we came back, I still had the sensation of earthquake tremors for a long time. My wife told me I talked something about the earthquake while I was dreaming several times. It might be the influence that earthquake brought to me, but it didn't affect my normal life.

What does Birendra want to say to his future self? Have a look! Birendra is sending a message to his future self to watch ten years from now!

Shot by Wang Haoling and Zheng Qiong. Edited by Zhong Youyang. Special thanks to Andy Boreham.
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