Being sick and (cultural?) disagreements on how to get better

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.


sidewalk hearts

love, love, love

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.

gekko, Hawaii

…except if I got sick in Hawaii and this gekko kept me company. (Credit: Hitoshi)

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.

life under a mossie net

bedtime in Thailand

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.

Kita-Senju Eki at night

Kita-Senju Eki (Station), Tokyo

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.

cute dog

It’s okay, Hilary. I’ll help you get better.

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:

  1. Close the windows.
  2. Close the doors.
  3. Turn off the lights.
  4. Wrap yourself in sweaters and other warm clothing, even if it’s the middle of the sweltering summer.
  5. Pile blankets on top of your bundled body, even if it’s the middle of a heat wave.
  6. Drag your ice-cold pillow out of the freezer to lie on. (Remember, hot body, cold head.)
  7. Turn off the lights.
  8. No bath. No shower. No washing hair.
  9. Sweat.
  10. Change your shirt and underwear as needed… ’cause of all that sweating.
jumping of straw bale

This is what happens when Hitoshi follows his own rules.

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:

  1. Open the windows.
  2. Open the doors. Bring in that fresh air!
  3. 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.
  4. Wrap yourself in only as many layers as you need to be comfortable.
  5. If you are warm, use a light sheet. If you’re cold, use a blanket. Do as you wish to feel comfortable.
  6. Turn off the lights or leave them on based on how you feel.
  7. Suffer, because this is often what sick feels like.

My dreams when I’m sick.

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.

miso soup and rice

comfort in a bowl

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?

lovey dovey bugs

Stay healthy you two!
(Get it? They’re bugs! Ah ha ha ha!)

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?

30 thoughts on “Being sick and (cultural?) disagreements on how to get better

  1. I never really understood the whole sweating thing either. In the Philippines, we do it there too. I remember being in sweaters, wrapped in warm blankets and being fed hot arroz caldo (rice porridge with chicken) in hot and humid climate. The only reason I can think of is that Asians are huge on driving “things” out. So the more one sweats, the more they drive out the fever.

    As for myself, I’m big on Western and homeopathic methodologies. For example, I take antipyretics but at the same time, I drink lots of fluids especially orange juice and ginger tea. Additionally, I think about signs and symptoms, like fever. It mobilizes one’s white blood cells to attack the insult but at the same time, one’s metabolism rate is up so fluids and rest are especially important.

    Best of both worlds, right?

    • Absolutely! It’s really nice to have perspectives from more than one source. I truly believe that not everyone will respond to whatever they grew up with. Rice porridge and chicken sounds like a delicious way to get better! I find it really interesting that chicken in some form seems to be a common remedy across cultures. There must be some truth to those old wives’ tales!

  2. I just do whatever feels comfortable when I’m sick. I will google stuff if I need more info.

    Yasu is also believes in the Japanese sweat-it-out method. I hate being hot and sweaty in all conditions, healthy and sick.

    • Hey girl! How’s your wee fam doing? It’s great to hear from you. I haven’t checked out your blog in months and I’m overdue. Yes! I also like being as comfortable as possible when I’m sick. And our family has been treated to illness in spades since late July. Currently our toddler is on sickness number 2. It simply goes in circles, doesn’t it. 😀 Oh yes… I still can’t get used to the sweat-it-out method. I don’t think I ever will. Hope you’re well!

  3. I think the traditional way in Spain would also be bundling up in blankets! I remember my grandma used to say “it’s better to sweat than to sneeze”. However, with colds, and if there is no fever, I think there is not much you can do… they will pass after a few days!

  4. Hi Hilary,

    I may not be in another country at the moment, yet being so far from ‘home’ I may as well be, and for me the stress of being sick is equal only to my inability to seek comfort from ‘my’ doctor. Coupled with Dean catching a cold on our recent visit to Sydney, and while the ‘bug’ (for want of a better word) gave him a pat on the back, it hit me like a tonne of bricks, and I’ve been extremely miserable for well over a week.

    Not fair, not funny, but not forever either. While I don’t advocate taking antibiotics just for the sake of it, they do have their place and I will only resort to a doctors visit when I know my body has done the best it can to fight off the bug.

    But seeing a doctor while travelling around is not an easy thing to do as many doctors in Australia are so busy they no longer take ‘new’ patients. This leaves visiting the hospital outpatients clinic, and with non existent system efficiencies like those in Japan, going to the hospital here is (normally) reserved for emergencies or near death experiences, much like in Canada, NOT for cold/flu diagnosis and treatment. Unless you are prepared to sit and wait, and wait, and wait, and hope that someone – anyone – sees you before everyone goes home at the end of the day. That’s my experience anyway.

    So in the meantime it’s rug up, drink lots hot honey infused lemon tea, and sweat it out. The bug will give up eventually.


    • I hope that nasty cold finally left you! Wow…. that’s both interesting and surprising that medical care is so stretched. Although I suppose when I stop to think, the country is vast and probably has the same troubles Canada does in finding doctors for smaller communities and government funding sometimes being like a yoyo. I take it you’ve got some sort of state insurance?? Is it transferable between states?

  5. Ahahah. A very interesting and entertaining post. I’m Filipino-born, so my family has their own traditional ways of dealing with illness. I’m more like your style when I get sick—I focus on making myself as comfortable as I possibly can. Sometimes, however, I can’t just swat away my family’s attempts to deal with me the traditional way. My dad’s theory is that the important thing is to “believe” I’m going to recover. Once I have this mindset, no matter what kind of treatment done to me, I’ll recover because my positive beliefs with work wonders. It’s a similar theory with faith healing, I guess.

    • Love it! Yes, I try to do the belief thing too, except when I have a sinus headache and feel like keeling over would be preferable. This whole get well post reminds me of the dad in My Big Fat Greek Wedding who was convinced that Windex cured everything. That always makes me laugh! Are there any foods or other natural medicines your family stroooooooongly advises you to take when you’re sick?

      • That’s so funny. Indeed. There are just illnesses that are too uncomfortable to leave to belief. Hmmm. Most of them are herbal. . .mostly, leaves of something and special oils. It depends on what kind of sickness. I don’t know all of them but I know some of the most common ones. Some of the treatments make sense, others are just ridiculous.

        • Oh, I can only imagine. Belief and sleep are great healers but I think some other interventions can speed things up sometimes. 😀 Hitoshi grew up with mostly Chinese medicine approaches along with pressure points. I got these special sticky patches with some sort of something in them when I hurt my back in Japan. They seemed to do more for me than the pills I was prescribed. (The hospital prescribed both to me.) You can also buy the OTC with either a hot or a cold sensation and they feel great as long as you choose the right one and of course, depending on what your symptoms are.

  6. Well I know a mix form of all these. Yes, sweating out the sick with tons of blankets and clothes. Then freshen up the house at least twice a day with all windows open because fresh air is important for the health. Showver each evening before going for your next sweating round and so forth. Furthermore in Finland it is also normal to take out the baby in the middle of the winter for their naps, supposed to strenghten their immune system 🙂

    • Wow! That’s quite a combo of fresh air and sweating. Hitoshi will be thrilled to know he has support from the other side of the world. (Well, not really as he’s very secure in his get-well-soon methods but I’ll again imagine that he now feels vindicated. ha ha!)

      By the way, did you keep training when you were sick?

      That’s interesting about Finnish babies. The immune system strengthening angle makes sense.

      • No, I never kept on with my practice when being sick, only when fully recovered. I lost few friends over the years who did not wait till the recovered and thus build up more and more scar tissue in their hearts -> heart failure

        • Huh… it makes sense though that continuing to push yourself at a very high level when your body is not ready can sometimes be disastrous. That’s very sad to hear. I think (hope?) things have changed closer to home. Now there are warnings at the pool that anyone with contagious symptoms is not allowed in. I’m not sure how many ignore the warning. I was basically sick the entire two years I was doing competitive synchro in the mid 80s. When I was in high school, I was on the swim team and kept swimming when I was sick. Now I think that was pretty stupid.

          • Bet many ignore the warning and sadly also some coaches don’t really see the dangers of doing practice when still not fully recovered. I doubt it will ever change as the competitive pressure will always be on the mind and any lost day in the pool are another few units to catch up

  7. Love this post!! It is also amusing how much you absorb living in another country. Navigating hospitals and medical treatment in a hospital environment is very different between Canada and India.

    First off – all decisions in India are a family / community affair. Things that you would rather remain private become very public very fast with a multitude of 2nd opinions, recommendations on who THE expert is who others SWEAR by til their dying breath for what ever ailment you may have. Especially if there is surgery involved – the cult of THE BEST surgeon is huge!

    Secondly – Blood banks are notoriously understocked with questionable blood supplies. So all those family, friends and community that are all instant experts and bring their legion of experts? Keep them busy donating blood, getting others to donate blood cus you can never have enough blood, apparently!

    Third – Know that prices vary wildly for practically everything. Which means the same procedure even in the same hospital costs a different amount whether you are insured vs uninsured, Indian national vs foreign passport, have connections vs don’t have connections, etc. Heck rumour has it that some famous folks and politicians never pay their bills… demand and get five star treatment… which means money is made via other means…

    There are oodles more I could share but these are just three that come top of mind.

    I never really think about the differences as I’ve become so ‘desi’ in all of this until I become the one translating the Indian approach for someone from outside.

    BTW – I’m clearly in the ‘bring in fresh air’ or ‘temperature as per your comfort’ type. Wouldn’t want to sweat something out and feel even more miserable!! 🙂

    • This is fascinating! Oh, I’d love to read more about the India way! It reminds me of delivering a baby when my whole body was an open book. Any remaining shreds of dignity evaporated pretty quickly and I can imagine getting sick in India would be similar! On the one hand, it’s liberating to know that you don’t go through anything alone but on the other hand, depending on what the problem is, it could be mortifying! (Is this a part of social control? ;D)

      I think the expert thing is really important in Japan, too. As soon as someone is sick, you get a rundown of where to go and where NOT to go. When we were in Japan and our little one had a high fever, Hitoshi was on his cell immediately emailing everyone he knew with kids for advice and what hospital to go to in Tokyo. There are tiers of public and private and all kinds of “inside info” about the pros and cons of each. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some under-the-table action.

      I remember you were saying that you live about a block or so from the hospital?? Do people go to the hospital in India for everything or more doctor’s offices/clinics first??

      • If you have GP, then you go to him / her first for anything minor. Our also is such a sweetheart she does home visits for my partner’s 85 year old mom. We just have to arrange for her to be picked up and dropped off. You can even get home x-rays for some things!

        Hospitals tend to be for the serious or desperately urgent stuff. And can be quite costly. Some of the govt hospitals have the reputation of being the place you go to die… not be patched up to live another day. Depressing, underfunded, sometimes quite poorly managed, there are reasons to avoid.

        One fried elected to have an elective procedure done in an anonymous charitable hospital. There were complications and the long and short is when I came to know, flew back from Singapore to Mumbai, got her moved to a ‘proper’ hospital, she still was in ICU for more than a month. It honestly wasn’t inconceivable that she could have died in the 1st place. Here she was an educated professional from Australia with more than passing acquaintance with the health insurance industry… and nearly kicked the bucket in India due to the conditions and rare complications. Was quite an experience!

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