Healthiness & the Passive-Aggressive Window Game: Chinese vs. Laowai

When we first arrived in China it was early spring, and we quickly discovered it was standard for people to wear three or more pairs of pants. Indoors. I assumed it was because they had to, because they couldn’t afford decent heating or the facilities and infrastructure were just too old. Haha, silly foreigner… that’s “using Western thinking to understand China”! This is China — there’s more to it than that.

The Passive-Aggressive Window Game

I want to switch out this picture for one showing my coworkers in the office, wearing their winter clothes, scarves, everything, next to a heater that’s not on and a window that’s not closed, complaining that it’s cold, while a guy walks by outside with a cloth mask over his mouth and nose because he’s protecting against the cold wind.

To my Western sensibilities, the scene is mildly insane. It’s cold and windy, people! Shut the windows and turn on the heaters that are in every single room, and we won’t have to wear our outside clothes inside! If you’re afraid of cold wind outside, why are you inviting it inside? Why did you deliberately turn our workspace into a near-freezing wind tunnel?

I’m all for creative responses to culture stress, so I’m conducting an informal and surreptitious sociological experiment. On my Chinese coworkers.

Now that winter is officially over but it’s still cold, during most of March at work we play the passive-aggressive window game. They open the windows wide — of course you should open the windows wide on cold and windy days. Parents will complain if they don’t. So we’re all freezing. But when no one’s looking, I walk by and, with numbed fingers, shut the windows. And after a couple classes, someone’s opened them again. So I wait until no one’s looking and shut them again. Just to see what will eventually happen. Will they catch on? Will I get caught in the act? What will they say? It’s exciting, no? :)

I can see not turning the heat on as a practical thing: everyone has to wear several layers just to survive the commute to work and changing would be inconvenient, homes might not be well-heated, heating costs money for the school, and the wiring can’t handle even half the heaters at one time. But none of that explains opening the windows and deliberately creating a draft in every classroom and office.

What do you mean, ‘Why?’? Isn’t it obvious?

To someone with no understanding of traditional Chinese medicine, what Chinese often do for the sake of health makes absolutely no sense; it’s maddeningly contradictory. And one of many areas within this health disconnect that we perennially encounter involves temperature and “wind.” For example, “wind” and “cold” are bad. Do not serve a Chinese person a glass of refrigerated water — that’s practically criminally negligent; give them hot water, even (especially) when it’s hot outside. If you drink cold water you’ll get diarrhea, unless it’s winter — then you can eat ice cream outside. But I don’t care if it’s summertime: if you don’t put socks on that baby she’ll get diarrhea!

And do not eat an apple outside on a windy day, unless you want to be guānxīn-ed about your health: “You’ll get ‘wind’ in your ‘stomach’!” Unless you’re provoking your local friends on purpose, like one foreign coworker I had who once faced the wind and opened her mouth wide to deliberately swallow as much wind as she could just to get a reaction from our adult students. But don’t expect a comfortable temperature indoors, even when it’s possible and affordable. Like fearing cold water, they also fear still air. Air must move, or else when we get old, we’ll die, or something. It doesn’t matter if it’s single-digit Celsius outside and windy; they will deliberately turn your school hallways and classrooms into wind tunnels. And then they’ll wear their winter coats and scarves inside and talk about how cold it is. It’s healthier.

If that seems like a deliberately disorganized jumble of anecdotes, that’s because it is. That’s how you first encounter traditional Chinese healthiness when you move over here. You don’t get a systematic introduction to traditional Chinese medicine; you get random comments at meals (“No thanks, my fire’s up”), coworkers who keep turning off the air conditioning in summer (空调!), and unsolicited advice about not wearing shorts in the spring (you’ll get arthritis when you’re old). Sorting that all out and making sense of it is your job.

Healthiness with Chinese characteristics

People usually don’t do things for no reason. Maybe you don’t agree with their reasons or don’t understand their reasons, or maybe their reasons are objectively bad. But most of the time their reasons make sense, at least according to their own terms. The deliberate early spring wind tunnel even makes some degree of sense to foreigners: it’s flu season, especially in a school, so they want to keep the air indoors fresh by ventilating 通风换气。Anyone who’s crossed the ocean in an airplane shared with sneezing coughing snuffling people should be able to appreciate this.

But health is often one of several huge areas of cultural disconnect between China and its resident laowais, of total misunderstanding and mutual scandalization. How wide is the disconnect? One coworker, after observing our daughter and how we handled her, theorized in all seriousness that the reason foreigners don’t care about their kids’ health as much as Chinese parents is because foreigners can have as many kids as they want. If we mess one or two up, no biggie — we can always have more! (To be fair, the other coworker in the conversation disagreed. Plus, it’s not uncommon for foreigners to basically make the same kind of accusation against Chinese. Remember: we’re mutually scandalizing.)

“Chinese medicine” 中医 as “the general Chinese understanding and approach to health” (rather than meaning “Chinese herbs” 中药 like ginseng or “techniques” like fire-cupping) is near impossible for Westerners to understand. The concepts are extremely difficult to express within our languages and worldview because they are so thoroughly tied to Chinese worldview, philosophy and thought categories. The Web That Has No Weaver, a book that attempts to explain Chinese medicine while appreciating the difficulty, begins with Chinese philosophy, not biology. If you read a description of Chinese medicine that you understand right away, then either you’re Chinese or what you’re reading is not a description of Chinese medicine; the meaning was lost in translation.

P.S. – “ventilating the air” to help combat flu season is the reason our youngest and most cosmopolitan employee gave me. But there’s another reason that’s probably at least as relevant: avoiding drastic changes in temperature. It’s not considered healthy to move from cold to hot or vice versa, to put cold things in your body when you’re warm, etc. People’s body temperature stays more consistent when they bundle up inside rather than making inside warm. This thinking is behind eating ice cream outside in the winter, and behind the story a friend told us yesterday explaining why she has bad cramping every month: when she was around 13 she got hot and sweaty from sports one day and went to take a shower. But the water came out really cold, suddenly dousing and chilling her over-heated body. She was on one of her first periods at the time. And that’s why she now has bad cramping every month.

4 thoughts on “Healthiness & the Passive-Aggressive Window Game: Chinese vs. Laowai”

    1. I thought it was worthwhile. A doctor friend in Canada recommended it to me when I asked her to help me understand what happens physiologically during guasha and firecupping.

      It’s not an easy read because the concepts are so foreign, but I thought it was more helpful than typical explanations that try to explain traditional Chinese medicine in Western scientific terms.

      It’s interesting to understand what happens during TCM procedures from a scientific/biological/physiological perspective, but that’s not an explanation of TCM. The Web That Has No Weaver tries to help Westerners understand TCM from a TCM perspective, on its own terms.

  1. It’s nice to see beliefs I’ve been holding dear through the years being challenged by views from a different perspective. Having been living in Australia for the past 7 years, I have learned a whole lot about being healthy and gained a much better understanding of western medicine. I guess the ‘mutual scandalization’ derives from ignorance and arrogant of one’s own culture. East sees Western medicine as merely antibiotics while West treats Chinese medicine as suspicious voodoo practice. The fact is that one is based on formula while the other is rooted from experience. BTW, I was born and bred in Tianjin.

    1. “The fact is that one is based on formula while the other is rooted from experience”

      Sorry Chengzuo, but I have to take issue with this phrase. Medicine has to be tested scientifically, it cannot just be “rooted in experience”. The problem with people’s experience, which basically means personal anecdotes, is that it is unreliable. A lot of people will swear blind that something is good for them or helps solve some health problem, when testing shows that it has no effect at all. You have to take the psychological effect into account.

      And no, the fact that we are talking about “5000 years” of experience makes it no more reliable. If Chinese medicine works, this should be scientifically testable.

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