Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Culture and Sickness


Went to the doctor and got a diagnosis and a couple of prescriptions that will probably knock out my illness - bronchitis, he said - in a few days. After seven days of coughing it's nice to think the end is in sight. I wonder if I'll be well enough to go to my small group Friday night?

On the other hand, I've accepted being sick with more grace than usual, this time. My life is slow and simple enough that seeing it grind more or less to a halt is not such a big deal. I'm not restless, at least not very much, wanting to get out and do things, not worried about what will happen if I don't. As much as I like being strong and responsive, I don't mind, so much, being weak and unavailable.


A few weeks ago I re-read all my journals from the year I spent in Sofarawayistan. Some 400+ pages of cultural details, prayers, struggles, funny stories, ramblings. Also looked through some of the other 500+ pages of writing I did during that season. I tried to keep it up when I came home, but it was just too hard, being surrounded by English-speakers I could talk to so easily!

Old World Meds

While I was there I caught a new cold every 4-6 weeks. I'm guessing it was just being in a new place and that the pattern would have ebbed in time. But it allowed me to experience indigenous health care from the inside, like it or not.

You know, it's one thing to be a culturally sensitive tourist or anthropologist, observing the way other people do things in a beautifully nonjudgmental way and choosing to believe the local practices are more in touch with nature and then getting on a plane and coming home - or, should you come down with something, finding a doctor who shares your background to treat you. But it's something else when you have a one-way ticket and live right among the people; you don't get to stand apart like that. It's a matter of "how we do things here" not "how they do things there." And under such circumstances it can be much harder to be sweet, tolerant, or objective. Especially when it's your own body - or your kid's - that's on the line!

I remember feeling the same threat to my personal autonomy over the question of hospitality - what we used to call "terrorist hospitality" before the word terrorist became so loaded ("You must keep eating!"). I think it was the day - in a neighboring country a few years earlier - that I was forced to eat five meals in five hours just to satisfy the pride of my hosts, that I realized just how American I am. America is all about freedom, about independence and the opportunity to choose for yourself. We think that's a universal value. It may be a widespread value, but other cultures don't put it at the top of the list like we do.

It's hard to put aside such deeply ingrained personal and cultural ideas about the way things are or the way things should be.

I'm sure there was some great, ancient wisdom in some of the local ways of Sofarawayistan, but I often found them flying in the face of what I'd grown up with. Coughing? Breath in this smoke, it will help. Nauseous? You need some fatty-lamb-tail stew. Got the sniffles? Have some hot milk. Everything seemed the opposite of what my mom would have said back home. One day when I'd been there a few months I got a bad steam burn. My local mother told me to put toothpaste on it. At first I thought I was having a bad language day... did she just say toothpaste? Turns out that's a pretty good approach, just one I'd never heard of.

Local explanations for the causes of illness were often in even greater conflict with what I'd always been told, as well. Our house was quite open to flies, mosquitoes, and rodents, and we didn't wash anything with soap and hot water. But the dirty environment wasn't what made me sick, they said. It was bathing too often. You shouldn't do that. Or drinking cold drinks, or not wearing enough layers of clothes. Or maybe a curse, the evil eye, or the djinn.

Sorting It Out

I'd enjoy sitting down and thrashing some of this stuff out with someone knowledgeable in both Eastern and Western medicine. All the traditions about not mixing hot and cold, for example - they are so darn widespread. I've seen variations all across Asia. I'm not saying we all need to give up A/C or stop eating ice cream in the summer, but is there something to it? Is there a way we can explain these things that jives with science?

I know that being the first one to leave a comment on a blog is a little intimidating, but I'd be interested in your stories or thoughts.


Pat said...

OK, I'll go first. The only thing I've heard is that it's bad for weak teeth. I imagine it like the warm or hot glass that cracks when you add something too cool. Not sure if it is the teeth or the fillings that crack. Anyway, hot fudge on ice cream is just too hard to give up. I've also heard that hot coffee sipped on a hot day actually cools the body. I don't THINK so!
BTW, Dave Coles and I had a nice chat yesterday and we prayed for you. I didn't know you were SO sick. God knew, of course.
blessings on you, Marti

Marti said...

The hot fudge sundae, even if dangerous and possibly evil, is surely a triumph of human civilization! The thing about hot drinks on a cool day helping cool you down, I've heard that and things like it a lot as I've traveled. I remember one Turkmen - remember they have the big wool hats, pretty much straight off the sheep, that look like afros - who said "It cools me down by creating a climate on my head." Sweat therapy? Thanks for praying for me, Pat - much appreciated! Once I get better, I need to make a list of people to interview about future min options... and DC & JC might be good folks to put on my list.