When George Hatem graduated from medical school at the University of Geneva in 1932 - in the middle of the Great Depression - he heard that doctors in New York City were driving milk trucks to earn a living. So instead of returning home to North Carolina he started traveling around the world until he landed in Shanghai, China.

Hatem, now 69, returned to the United States yesterday for the first time after spending the past 46 years in mainland China, where he was personal physician for a time to Mao Tze-tung and is credited with directing the campaign that eliminated venereal disease as a health problem in the country.

He landed at Dulles International Airport on his way to a reunion with nephews and nieces he has never met who live in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., just south of the Virginia border. Hatem, ill the last six months with cancer, suffered no signs of jet lag and appeared unfazed by the changes that have occurred in his native country.

"I'm going to see my southern family and my northern family. I'm going to see my classmates (from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and my friends. And I'm going to see some Americans," said Hatem.

His brother Joseph, a merchant and importer from Roanoke Rapids who has visited him in China three times, said Hatem has managed to survive political changes in the Communist government by concentrating on medicine and avoiding politics.

But Hatem belied that image on his arrival. Walking arm in arm with Han Hsu, deputy chief of the Liaison Office here for the People's Republic of China, Hatem said, "They got rid of the gang of four and now they are fixing it (the revolution) up."

When a friend laughted that he was making political speeches during his first five minutes on American soil, he replied, "I guess I need a soapbox."

Hatem is a man of consequence in China, where he is known as Ma Haiteh, a combination of Chinese characters that translates as "Virture from Overseas." Early in his stay he traveled to the Chinese Community mountain sanctuaries where he became friend and physician to Mao Tse-tung. That is where he first met Han Hsu, who presently is mainland China's highest-raking diplomat in Washington.

"We belonged to the same organization," Han said yesterday.

Hatem, whose medical specialty is dermatology (skin diseases), worked on the problems of leprosy in China. But he is best known for leading the drive to end venereal diseases in China.

"He was the chief person for getting rid of VD in China," said Dr. Tsung-O Cheng of the George Washington University Medical School, who first met Hatem in China in 1972.

"That is one of the most remarkable things that the West remembers him for."

He became friendly in his early years in Shanghai with the well-known American journalist, Edgar Snow, and in 1972 when Snow was gravely ill Hatem was sent to his bedside in Geneva by then Chinese Premier Chou En-lai.

Hatem now lives in Peking with his wife Sufei, who accompanied him here.

They were greeted at Dulles by about a dozen American and Chinese friends and friends of friends including Dr. Samuel Rosen, an ear specialist who met Hatem in China and flew here from New York just to meet the plan.

"You haven't changed a bit," Rosen told Hatem. Cheng said Hatem had lost a little weight, but otherwise looked surprisingly well.

The state of Hatem's health worried his friends here. They knew he had been ill with cancer of the pancreas for about six months and feared that he had deteriorated physically during that time. Just in case, they had wheelchairs ready to carry him through immigration and customs and over to the small plane that would return him to North Carolina.

But Hatem walked through the customs area with a strong strido, his face beaming as he spotted old friends in the greeting party. He showed no sign of illness or fatigue as he alternated conversations in Chinese or English that still bore the slightest touch of a Tar Heel accent.

He was dressed in a gray suit, gray sweater and red tie, and wore a pair of soft blue shoes. He sported a large rod button from the just concluded Chinese National Science Congress on his lapel.

According to his brother Joseph, Hatem last set foot on American soil 49 years ago when he left to study medicine at the American University of Beirut (his family is of Lebanese origin) and then at the University of Geneva.

Even though Hatem stayed in China and worked for the government there during the height of the Cold War, when there were no diplomatic relations between the two countries and few Americans could travel there, he maintained his American citizenship and kept his passport.

He had no problem going through customs and immigration yesterday.

He expects to stay in the United States for about six months and then return to China, his brother Joseph, said. Why did he come back now?

"To see his family," said Joseph. "Every time I went over there I said, 'It's time to come and visit us.' He finally did."