Ugh! Hitoshi is still getting over suspected influenza and I’m in the thick of a super coughy, sinus headachy like-my-brain-is-going-to-be-squished-out-of-my-ears nastiness.
Getting sick far from the familiar
Getting sick in an international context can be the pits. You might be far from remedies you’re used to and sometimes have weird things thrust at you to “just try”.
On the other hand, you don’t have to necessarily go far to have your body react strangely. I was surprised when my hand seemed destined to self-implode from an insect bite at my new job in British Columbia. I’d only moved provinces!
You can go farther with similar results. My finger blew up into a pussy mess about a month after I’d moved to Finland for school. Yuck.
Getting sick in an intercultural context can also be… hmm… aggravating… for everyone.
Sweating out the sick in Thailand
Volunteering in Thailand, I was the lone Canadian among a gaggle of Germans at our post. My long-lost language skills leapt to life and my roomies were fantastic.
Until I got sick.
In a most efficient way, a mystery illness with the same symptoms felled each of us one by one. The drill was to keep checking the temperature of the current invalid. The instant a fever set in, we were to rush to the nearest hospital.
When it was my turn, I thought I was going into a coma. My limbs would barely move and I could only lay still in one spot.
No fever came but I was swelteringly hot. I begged my roommates to turn the fan on but NO.
I was sternly told to bundle up and add a scarf. The fan could be on but only if it was at least 10 feet (3 metres) away and at the lowest setting.
Gnashing my teeth and unable to move, I lay there too tired to crawl back under the mosquito net and simply suffered.
Getting sick in Japan
Of course I would get sick in Japan. More than once. All in the first six months.
Getting sick in that other country I call home was enlightening.
The first discovery is, while doctors exist, you tend to visit them in the hospital. This was a huge shock.
Back in Canada, the only time you go to the hospital is if you are close to death. Even then, you might have to wait hours to be served if someone closer to death than you arrived first.
In Japan, it’s different. The hospital is your first stop from blood pressure checks and colds to severed limbs and unconsciousness.
It’s a great system! You arrive, complete paperwork, a nurse takes your temperature in the open waiting room, regardless of your ailment, you wait, and then… presto! A world of doctors, lab tests, x-rays, specialists and an open pharmacy are at your disposal.
Unless it’s late.
And the specialists have gone home.
But it’s okay! You just come back the next day.
If you don’t speak Japanese, you’ll be fine. Bring a bilingual dictionary or a friend or cross your fingers and toes hard that maybe the doc that sees you speaks a little English.
If you have lab tests, someone will point you to the correct line on the floor. They are all color coded and it’s like following the yellow brick road. You won’t get lost. And after? Follow them back to the starting point.
Treating a cold the Japanese way
During those first months in Japan and after successfully battling an eye infection, my body was bored and decided to get full on sick.
So sick I couldn’t go to work.
So sick I never wanted to leave my mouldy apartment ever again.
So sick I wanted to curl up in a corner and wish my way back to Canada. Or maybe a guardian angel would arrive and nurse me back to health or at least something more desirable than my current situation.
Instead, my manager showed up with plastic grocery bags, handles straining under the weight of their loads.
Pocari Sweat (a weird, milk-like, fizzy drink that I grew to appreciate years later), fruit juice, bottled tea, fruit and assorted snacks. Heaven! I curled up in bed and watched, “The Last Samurai”.
I’m sure my manager lay advice upon me about getting better and why I was supposed to drink Pocari Sweat but in my incapacitated state, there was no way it was getting through.
This was no problem! I’d eventually meet a man who would give me a rock solid education treating illness the Japanese way.
Hitoshi’s Japanese Rules for when you are sick
Hitoshi and I have our unique ways of dealing with illness based on our backgrounds. They are often mismatched and we puzzle each other by our “weird” ways of handling a case of the sickies.
Hitoshi’s strict rules:
- Close the windows.
- Close the doors.
- Turn off the lights.
- Wrap yourself in sweaters and other warm clothing, even if it’s the middle of the sweltering summer.
- Pile blankets on top of your bundled body, even if it’s the middle of a heat wave.
- Drag your ice-cold pillow out of the freezer to lie on. (Remember, hot body, cold head.)
- Turn off the lights.
- No bath. No shower. No washing hair.
- Change your shirt and underwear as needed… ’cause of all that sweating.
Hilary’s Canadian ways of handling being sick
The first time Hitoshi got sick in Japan, I tried to nurse him back to health using my Canadian ways. This did not go well. Despite Hitoshi being incapacitated, he swat away my attempts and insisted on his sweating/suffering method.
He got better all by himself.
Then we moved to Canada and Hitoshi got sick again. I figured that since we were in Canada, he might be swayed by my ways. Nope! The sweating aka suffer method reigned supreme.
I’m okay though because now I nurse him back to health in my head, my way.
Hilary’s flexible guidelines:
- Open the windows.
- Open the doors. Bring in that fresh air!
- Take a bath or shower at least once a day if you can manage it. The steam is good and washing your hair feels nice.
- Wrap yourself in only as many layers as you need to be comfortable.
- If you are warm, use a light sheet. If you’re cold, use a blanket. Do as you wish to feel comfortable.
- Turn off the lights or leave them on based on how you feel.
- Suffer, because this is often what sick feels like.
Hitoshi vs. Hilary’s sweating and suffering
Okay. I admit. Both of us are “right”.
We both recover and we both feel that our way is best based on what we were taught, observed or created.
I’m curious about why the Japanese way includes closing up the house and smothering under piles of blankets. It reminds me of the German way. Sweating out the sick seems to be common. Where and how did it start?
What about the theory behind the fresh air requirement? I’m not sure but my mother dutifully placed me outside, on the porch, in the middle of bitterly cold Alberta winters for my naps as a baby. I was well bundled, but it would have been below -20 Celsius. !!!
Why? Her mother told her it was important. I can’t go back further but it’s an interesting connection. Fresh air for health and fresh air to cure illness.
Despite theories, possibilities and convincing reasons about the benefits of each approach, it’s unlikely Hitoshi or I will change our preferred ways.
When you’re sick, it’s normal to revert to the basics. You want what is comforting, familiar and easy and you do your best to make it happen.
How about you?
Of course, not every person from country A, B or C follows the same rules, traditions, habits or practices to get well. It can vary greatly between communities and even families on the same street.
That’s what makes these habits so fascinating, especially when you see complete opposites and exact similarities in people from different parts of the world.
Is the first stop the doctor for antibiotics or the drugstore for decongestants? Do you turn to “natural remedies” from the store or make your own from the recipes of previous generations?
Do you keep going to work or school? Do you call in sick and lock yourself up at home until you’re 100% back to normal?
Do you jump on the internet for advice or wait until you either get better or you’re so sick only a professional can help?
Share your tips, ideas and theories on how you get well soon. If you are living or have lived in a country different to your birth one, what have you experienced or been baffled by?