Laura Chandler felt nervous on the drive to a provincial hospital in China to find out if she was pregnant -- and munched on a purple jawbreaker to ease the tension.

After listening to Chandler's pulse, the first thing the "traditional" (i.e., folk medicine) doctor wanted to do was look at her tongue.

After an embarrassing moment while Chandler explained the unusual color, the physician proceeded with his examination: It consisted of a pulse check on both wrists, the tongue examination and a general sizeup of her outward physical appearance. Then the doctor wrote out a long prescription of herbs, bark, roots and other natural medications.

"There were at least 40 items," which the Anhui Province Medical College hospital filled at once, recalled Chandler, 29, a Silver Spring native who went to Albert Einstein High School.

"I'll never forget how horrible the stuff tasted after we brewed it," she said. "But in a couple of days, I was rid of morning sickness, my appetite was back and I felt great again."

That was last September. Any day now Chandler will deliver her baby in the same hospital. She and her husband Jon Ritter, 31, both English-language instructors at Anhui Provincial University, look forward without qualms to having what is believed to be the first American child ever born in the central Chinese province.

The birth is a big occasion for Hefei, a city of just under 500,000 -- not very large for China -- in one of the country's poorer, predominately agricultural provinces.

"Here in Hefei," said Ritter, "we're very big fish in a very small pond." Chinese people Chandler and her husband do not even know are sewing clothes for the baby.

Anhui University even assured Chandler she will be given the same 56-day maternity leave with pay as any Chinese woman, even though her monthly pay is about what a Chinese teacher makes in a year.

Apart from the couple's decision to have their baby in China -- and indeed in the countryside of China where medicine is far less advanced than in Peking or Shanghai -- Chandler and Ritter are fairly typical of the new wave of young Americans here to assist China's modernization.

They have much in common with that other generation of Americans who came a century ago hoping to convert the Chinese to Christianity. Today's "missionaires," however, work for the government in fields such as scientific research, industrial management, export marketing, finance and especially education. They are called "foreign experts" and receive wages that are minimal by Western standards -- along with a golden opportuniity to see a China largely barred to the casual tourist.

Chandler won her certificate in Chinese from the University of Paris after studying at the University of Chicago. Ritter holds a B.A. from Penn State in labor relations. Unable to get jobs in their fields, the two ended up working in a Washington restaurant where they met.

Not thrilled by bartender's work and intrigued by China's westward opening -- which Chandler saw firsthand on two tourist visits here -- the two applied to the Chinese for teaching jobs, were accepted and then decided to get married.

The couple headed for Peking in late 1978 and heard news of the normalization of diplomatic relations with China on the way to the plane.

From Peking they were assigned to the 3,000-student Anhui University, located on the outskirts of Anhui's capital city, roughly 550 miles south of Peking and about 250 west of Shanghai.

The couple's first home together is a spacious, high-ceilinged two-room suite in a guest house adjoining the city's largest tourist hotel. The suite comes rent-free with their jobs, and the hotel caters their meals for about $5 a day -- a small dent in their $800 monthly joint income.

The two say they find the university very friendly and the students a real joy in their earnestness and achievement. Life in Hefei seems pleasant enough, though sadly lacking in the cultural stimuli of Shanghai or Peking.

Their sense of security in Hefei, in fact, was one of the factors in the decision to have the baby here rather than in Peking or Shanghai as many friends had urged.

"The main reason, of course," said Chandler, "was that I would soon be 30 and we should have the baby now. We also felt May would be the best time from every angle -- both work and weather -- and we had to chuckle when our Chinese friends all congratulated us on our 'good luck' on having the baby due then."

In addition to the traditional doctor who cared for her at the beginning of her pregnancy, Chandler has been attended by the Western-trained chief of obstetrics at the state medical college. The delivery room at its teaching hospital is being refurbished.

"When I began to think I was pregnant and went to the hospital for the first examination, it seemed to have all the equipment, and the doctors I met gave me a real sense of knowing what they were doing, of being competent and really caring. I just never had any real doubts."

But there were some shocks: Chandler had not expected to be attended by a traditional doctor whose job it was to make sure the early pregnancy proceeded without difficulty. He gave her a long list of do's and don'ts, ranging from not lifting any weight over her head and only drinking two quarts of liquids a day to avoiding sex in the first and last months of pregnancy.

She also was a bit alarmed by what seemed a "casual" attitude toward cleanliness in the hospital, and by the crowd of patients' relatives who seemed to be living in the halls outside the wards.

But one American concern has not been mentioned at all: weight. In fact, the scale in the office of her obstetrician was broken and not replaced until this spring. "Everybody says, eat a lot, eat a lot," Chandler said.

One element makes Laura feel at home with the hospital here: One of her students at Anhui University last year is now teaching English at the medical school and serves as her interpreter on medical matters. The student will assist at the delivery.

After much discussion, the doctors, clearly grappling with a question they never expected to face, broke Chinese tradition and decided to allow Ritter to be present at the birth.

"People sent us books about the Lamaze method and we read it had been introduced into the Soviet Union and China," Chandler said. "But as far as we can see, there's no system here at all, Lamaze or otherwise. Certainly there's no preparatory instruction for childbirth. I haven't seen any arrangement for anaesthesia in the delivery room, but it's very hard on the baby anyway. I just want Jon to be with me."

After the early visits to the "traditional" doctor, the later gynecological examination was exactly what Chandler said she would have expected in an American doctor's office, and so was the schedule of monthly check-ups plus office visits every 10 days in the eighth month.

"The doctors are very thorough, though," she said.

The couple said their families are supportive of their decision. Chandler's widowed mother, who is now the head of U.S.-China friendship association in Maryland, plans to come to Hefei as a volunteer worker after the baby is born. For Ritter's father in Pittsburgh, this will be the first grandchild.

"He's really excited," Ritter said. "He has already sent us diaper pins, Pampers, a toy and some color film that we're only allowed to use for baby pictures."