Maybe you think writing about coffee enemas is… in poor taste. Well, this isn’t about coffee enemas; it’s about the crazy stuff that floats through our daily conversations in China and the deliciously odd experience of encountering it in a second language. Like last week’s little exchange:
“Hey, Dajiang! I sent you a Weixin message for Jessica, to help her recovery.” (Jessica recently had surgery, and our Chinese friends have been super supportive.)
“Oh, yeah? What is it?”
“It’s about a treatment that’s really popular right now: coffee guàncháng. It’s helping lots of cancer patients recover.”
(I’ve never heard the word guàncháng before, so I just ignore it. You can usually get through a conversation without understanding every single word.) “Ha, if I tell Jessica she has to drink more coffee to get better she’ll be very happy.”
“No, Dajiang. It’s coffee *guàncháng*.”
I think it’s interesting how our brains handle this kind of Chinese-as-a-language situation. All within a split-second, your brain realizes that this word does matter and searches out your best guess from within the Chinese you have. Our brains are wondrously quick and powerful, but not foolproof (as I’m about to discover).
Context is extra important in Chinese, with its relatively small number of syllables and incredible number of homophones. Every syllable is a character, and a single word can be one or more syllables (“big” 大 + “learn” 学 = university 大学). Guàn-cháng is two Chinese syllables, which my brain takes one at a time, starting with the most familiar:
Cháng is easy. We’re talking about health so I assume it’s the cháng for intestines 肠, a character we see all the time in the market and on restaurant menus, rather than the cháng for “often” 常, “long” 长, “taste” 尝, “big flat open space” 场 or the surname 常.
Guàn — Ok, medical and health topic, something about intestines, medicine that you don’t drink… guàn guàn guàn… the only guàn that comes to mind is this thing we occasionally ate for lunch in Tianjin called jīdàn guànbǐng, not very much like an oily Chinese egg McMuffin, where they slice open one side of the biscuit and crack an egg into it before frying it. I’d never paid attention to the literal meaning of the name: egg (jīdàn) + enclose? + Chinese biscuit (bǐng）.
So the train of thought goes like this:
+ medical treatment context
“egg” + “enclosed”? + “biscuit”
“guàn-cháng” = “enclose” + “intestines”
+ medicine association
= “enclose” in the “intestines”?
“kāfēi guàncháng” = “coffee suppository”?
So I’m going with coffee suppositories and the conversation doesn’t miss a beat; that whole thought process takes just a split second. But I do whip out my Pleco dictionary as we’re talking to make sure. And according to Pleco, indispensable lifeline of Chinese language students everywhere, guàncháng = enema. (Turns out guàn means “pour” or “irrigate”, not “enclose”; “egg-poured biscuit” makes more sense, too). So we’re talking about coffee enemas – “coffee-poured intestines” — not coffee suppositories. Or maybe I should think of it as “coffee-irrigated intestines”? This conversation just keeps getting better and better.
“You believe it?”
“Yeah, look! It’s not just in Hunan province — that’s just the TV station that aired the program. Lots of places are doing this!”
“Well thanks! I’ll definitely tell her!”
If you’re curious about the health benefits of multiple daily coffee enemas aka 咖啡灌肠, you can drop this link‘s text into Google translate.
You can also browse lots more Chinese health, language learning and cross-cultural fun:
P.S. — Just to be fair, this is a China blog so I write about China stuff. If I were writing a North America blog, I could mention the trendy North American health advice I received last year from an American friend who e-mailed me suggesting I use garlic as a suppository to help beat a lingering cold.
P.P.S. — For the good kind of North American health advice, see Wellness With Joanna (though as far as I know, she has not yet commented on garlic or coffee as suppositories or enemas).
Healthis one of the biggest worldview disconnects between Chinese and Western cultures. Another is ethics. Putting it simplistically: To us, their stark pragmatism sounds amoral and selfish. To them, our abstract principles sound naive and heartless. It’s mutually appalling, and mutual understanding is nigh impossible. (Parenting has gotta be in the top 5.)
We’re halfway through a week in the hospital, and I thought this anti-“hongbao” signage was interesting. “Hongbao” (红包) is an ingrained aspect of Chinese culture where the patient’s family slips extra money to the surgeon in a “red envelope” to encourage better treatment. It’s illegal in Chinese countries, but that doesn’t stop it.
Front and center on the nurses’ station:
Honest medical treatment; Refuse to accept hongbao 诚信医疗，拒收红包
Despite this, the translator assigned to us (she’s helpful, but her English is harder for us to understand than the doctor’s Chinese) says, “Sometimes, it still happens.”
Apparently there are a lot more ways than hongbao for doctors to earn extra ethically-suspect income. This poster is at the entrance to our floor:
To Strengthen Medical Treatment Clean Behaviour Customs, Construct “The Nine Forbiddens”
It’s forbidden for health care personnel personal income to be connected to medication or medical examination income.
It’s forbidden to take a commission.
It’s forbidden to receive payment against the rules.
It’s forbidden to illegally accept social welfare subsidies.
It’s forbidden to participate in marketing activities or distribute medical advertising against the rules.
It’s forbidden to fill prescriptions for business purposes.
It’s forbidden to use illegally and selfishly procured medical products.
It’s forbidden to accept kickbacks.
It’s forbidden to accept patient “hongbao”.
I don’t think hongbao is good despite what the authors linked below argue. But simplistically dismissing it as a bribe without first understanding it isn’t that helpful either. Looking more closely at the reasons and dynamics of this old practice also provides a helpful window into Chinese culture and common ethics. Here’s a bit from an American hongbao apologist: From China, With Pragmatism
It is very common for a Chinese family to give hongbao to a surgeon who is about to perform a procedure on a family member. Everyone knows to do this, and everyone does it to the extent that they are able. The Americans in our group thought this practice was unethical bribery, because it sought to bias the doctor in one’s favor. The Chinese people at the table replied, “Of course it biases the doctor. That’s why we do it.” Not only were they mystified by the censure, but the Chinese were prompted to ask if the Americans had any children — for every parent surely uses any means necessary to protect loved ones.
When one embassy officer (working his best “hearts-and-minds diplomacy”) suggested that the Chinese switch the giving of hongbao to after the successful operation, rather than before, the Chinese were struck dumb with astonishment. Of course, you have to give the hongbao beforehand because it motivates the doctor. The gift tells the doctor: (a) to take special care with our child (b) we respect your surgical skills/education and “give face” accordingly (c) we are devoted to our child, will hold you responsible and have the means to do so. The fact that not everyone can afford to influence their doctor with hongbao is not grounds for withholding it, since we’re trying to protect my child here and now. The parent, according to the Chinese, should never weigh the child’s well-being against something so arcane as an abstract principle.
Bribery is the lubricant that helps keep China’s public hospitals running, and the health system would struggle to function without illegal payments to poorly paid doctors and administrators, say medical practitioners and industry experts.
A doctor fresh out of medical school in Beijing earns about 3,000 yuan ($490) a month including bonuses — roughly the same as a taxi driver. A doctor with 10 years experience makes around 10,000 yuan a month, according to Peter Chen, chief executive of privately run Oasis International Hospital in Beijing.
“Without the grey income, doctors would not have the incentive to practice,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
hongbao is adding to the financial pressure most patients are already under, at a time when medical and health cost is very high. The public has long expressed their dissatisfaction with this accepted practice. The government has already taken a number of measures to save the deteriorating patient-doctor relationship resulting from hongbao by announcing that doctors who take bribes will be struck off the doctor roll. In some parts of China, it is announced that those who report this practice to the government can receive a reward worth thousands of yuan, while the doctors concerned will be dismissed. However, despite these kinds of measures, it seems the hongbao tradition is entrenched and likely to die a very slow death in China.
Violence against doctors in China has become a familiar occurrence. In September, 2011, a calligrapher in Beijing, dissatisfied with his throat-cancer treatment, stabbed a doctor seventeen times. In May, 2012, a woman attacked a young nurse in Nanjing with a knife because of complications from an operation performed sixteen years earlier. In a two-week period this February, angry patients paralyzed a nurse in Nanjing, cut the throat of a doctor in Hebei, and beat a Heilongjiang doctor to death with a lead pipe. A survey by the China Hospital Management Association found that violence against medical personnel rose an average of twenty-three per cent each year between 2002 and 2012. By then, Chinese hospitals were reporting an average of twenty-seven attacks a year, per hospital.
Last week on Wednesday afternoon it was over 30’C. We were sweating in the office — not because we don’t have big air conditioners but because everyone except me is afraid or unwilling to use them enough to actually make the room comfortable. A coworker thoughtfully brought me a cup of water, bless her soul, which she’d poured from a hot thermos. I knew it would be that way, and as my already-sweaty hand felt the heat through the “Little Foreigner”-brand (小洋人) cup’s paper sides, I knew it was time for a summer-in-China post.
Turns out (big surprise!) the Chinese tend to manage the heat differently than we do; for foreigners this basically means unnecessary sweating. When I remember to think, I see these big differences over ultimately little things as opportunities to practice understanding and getting along with people who have fundamentally different perspectives from you — something our Western societies tend to do a pitiful job of in general. And we need the practice, because if you have Chinese friends you’ll easily discover big differences over bigger things, too.
1. Cold will give you chronic health problems
Our Chinese tutor is thoroughly convinced that the reason she has painful cramping every month is all due to a particular event in her childhood. When she was 12 or 13, right around the time when she had her first period — I should mention here that if talking about your periods and diarrhea and weight and acne and other body-related things makes you uncomfortable, China will either cure you of that or make you cry, maybe both. When it comes to casually discussing these kinds of body things, Westerners tend to be hypersensitive by comparison. Now back to our language tutor’s menstrual cycle… — she’d been out playing sports on a really hot day. She was all flushed and sweaty and came inside to have a shower. She stood under the shower and turned it on, but the water came out really cold a shocked her. She’s convinced that that untimely instance of drastic temperature change — a hot sweaty body getting doused in extra cold water right at the time her body was changing — is why her monthly cycle is painful to this day.
She comes over for three hours twice a week. We put the air conditioner on “dehumidify” instead of cool. Don’t want coming to our apartment to cause her to fear for her health.
2. Hot sand is good for your bones
Friends in Vancouver, Canada – which neighbours called HONGcouver when I was a kid – asked on Instagram:
I didn’t know, though I guessed it had to do with TCM. So I ask our tutor, and she immediately replies, “Oh yeah, I’ve done that lots of times.” She didn’t know why the lady was wearing a shirt and shorts, but apparently it’s not uncommon for some people go to the beach, get wet, and then cover their skin in hot sand. This helps get the ‘Wind’ and ‘Damp’ our of your bones to prevent “Wind-Damp disease” (风湿症 aka rheumatism) in the future. That was out tutor’s explanation, anyway. (More about this and links to more TCM stuff here: How to scandalize your Chinese neighbours: Evil stepmother edition.)
3. Air conditioners make you sick
Jessica goes to a Chinese book club; it’s great for meeting people and improving her Chinese. This particular group happens to be the more ‘cosmopolitan’ kind of Chinese: younger, educated, disposable income, international travel experience, lots of ‘foreigner friends’, and they love practicing their English so much that many of them only know each other by their ‘English names’ and not their real names. Point here being they’re less typical. Not saying they’re less Chinese, just that they’re a particular breed that’s more foreign-influenced.
So they meet last week, everyone shows up sweaty, and they turn on the air conditioner. Then one more person comes in. She has a cold. She sits directly in front of the air conditioner and then asks if they can turn it off because she’s sick. There are sympathetic comments about ‘air conditioner disease‘ (空调病) making lots of people sick right now, but no one wants to turn it off. This group has figured out that not sweating indoors is nice. They hint at her to sit somewhere else and that they don’t want to turn it off, but this only child is either oblivious or unwilling. So they turn it off, and everybody sweats. After all, she had a point: air conditioners are bad for you.
P.S. – Cross-cultural anecdotes
This is not a disclaimer, but I do want to say something about cross-cultural anecdotes and what they mean and don’t mean.
Anecdotes are powerful; they make impressions. They don’t prove anything, but they can vividly illuminate or mislead depending on how they’re used. I’m not making this stuff up, and I’m not trying to give a particular impression of China or Chinese people. The stories on this blog are not a representative summary of Chinese thought and culture. But they are China as we encounter it. If they illuminate and help outsiders better understand Chinese culture, great. I hope so. Regardless of how accurately this blog portrays the Chinese, what our stories truly represent is one North America family’s personal encounter with and growing understanding of Chinese culture. I hope our experiences, and our understanding of our experiences, accurately reflect Chinese culture, but we’re learning as we go here.
Brace yourself; we’re going down the cross-cultural rabbit hole.
China’s Good Samaritan Exception
As you may have heard, Mainland Chinese are (in)famous for not being Good Samaritans; they really don’t want to get entangled in some other family’s problems. Domestic abuse, public medical emergencies, blatant pickpocketing — if it’s not their family, it’s not their problem, and it’s too risky to get involved anyway. But I’ve found an exception to this rule: our kids.
What happened yesterday is a prime example. Jessica took the girls to play outside while I was teaching. It was pushing 34’C and neighbour kids were playing in some water on the sidewalk and invited ours to play. Scandal ensued.
Pop Quiz: Spot the Scandal
Now, Chinese culture pop quiz: Why is this stranger grabbing our kid?
There are clues in the photo. But there’s nothing special about the water (the pipe delivering potable water to the building sprung a leak, so free clean water!) or the ground; it’s just kids playing in water on the sidewalk. But if China had a Child Protective Services and Chinese people cared to use it, they’d consider calling it on account of our horrible parenting on display in this picture.
The parents and grandparents (not all the kids & caregivers are pictured) were visibly disturbed and provoked to intervene more than once when Jessica didn’t stop K, our youngest, from sitting down on the wet sidewalk. They’d try to stand her up, and she’d just give them a look and sit back down (notice the stools in the picture). And of course they hassled Jessica about it. According to our language tutor, if a Chinese person let her kid play this way, neighbours would gossip that she can’t be the biological mother (亲妈妈), that she must be a stepmother (后妈、后娘) because only an uncaring non-relative would let a kid do that. “She just doesn’t look after her!” (不怎么管她) is what they actually said in front of Jessica.
Oh, I… see.
Of course, Jessica asked questions to get them to explain. She knows a good educational entertainment opportunity when she sees it.
Jessica: “What’s the matter with her sitting down?”
Neighbours (looking like Jessica has three heads): “Dampness! Moistness!” (潮 / 湿)
Jessica: “So? What will happen?”
Neighbours: “She’ll get sick!” (得病)
Jessica: “You mean she’ll get a cold?”
Jessica: “Then what sickness?”
Neighbours: “Her bones will get sore.” Then they quickly discuss what the proper term is, and say: “Rheumatism!” (风湿症)
As with a great many of the stark, mutually-appalling Chinese v. North American parenting differences, this one is rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). By TCM I mean the health theory (中医学术理论（中医学）), not Chinese herbs (中药) like ginseng or specific applications (具体应用) like acupuncture (针灸), guasha (刮痧), or fire cupping (拔罐).
TCM is a fundamental given for the Chinese, part of their basic fabric of reality. And it’s so deeply culturally determined that it’s virtually incomprehensible to Westerners. (Fun game: If you want to get yourself patronized like a silly little child, go explain to a Chinese friend how TCM is make-believe and inferior to Western medical science.) But I won’t let a little thing like that stop me from trying to explain! :)
The problem is, according to the popular TCM understanding of our neighbours and of our sharp and foreigner-accustomed language tutor (I could write several posts on the reasons she gives for her real or imagined ailments), if our daughter sits in the water on a bricked sidewalk, she’ll get Damp (潮). (Well, shoot dang! No kidding. She might get wet, too. Maybe even soaked!) But they don’t mean damp like what you’re thinking; it’s more like damp+. Being affected by Damp Air (潮气) is a particular TCM health condition; Damp involves but is not entirely reducible to the purely physical/material/scientifically investigate-able and explainable phenomenon we think of. Ditto for related TCM concepts like Cold (寒) and Moist (湿) and Wind (风), all of which can get into your body in some nonspecific unobservable way and give you future health problems. Maybe like cooties? With Chinese characteristics?
The fear is that because of the water and the material that bricks are made of, Cold Air (寒气) could get into our daughter’s body or bones (身体/骨骼). She would therefore “get/receive/be subjected to Cold” (受寒). This would cause her to get sick (得病), not in the sense of “catch a cold” (curious we say it that way, eh?), but in the specific sense that Cold entering her bones when she was almost 1-and-a-half-years-old will cause her to have rheumatism when she’s old.
Anyway, this little episode is interesting to me for a couple reasons: the TCM stuff, but also because it’s a situation in which normal Chinese people actually intervene on a regular basis. I wonder if us being foreigners makes them more or less willing to intervene like this.
One sure way to spot a China newbie is that they’re still trying to talk sense into Chinese people regarding health and medicine. They don’t know to avoid conversations like the one I avoided earlier this week with our daughter’s Chinese preschool teacher.
I drop off our daughter at her classroom and say to her teacher, “She’s got a bit of a cold.”
“That’s because she doesn’t wear enough, isn’t it.” She smiles sweetly. But it’s not a question.
Now, we like this teacher; she’s not harsh like the other teachers. She’s patient, and positive. And in this situation she’s not so much criticizing our parenting as demonstrating the responsible concern of a good, dedicated and attentive teacher. Every Chinese person who has ever voiced an opinion on the topic (note: that’s a lot of Chinese people) thinks our kids don’t wear enough to the detriment of their health. It’s borderline scandalous. Our particular Bad Parents Offense these last two weeks is letting our almost-4-year-old wear short sleeves to school. It’s what I hear the nǎinais comment about as we run their gauntlet on our way into the school. It’s just not the time of year for kids to wear short sleeves; weather and the actual temperature has nothing to do with it.
I want to reply, “No, it’s because no one teaches her classmates even nominal hygiene, like covering your mouth when you’re hacking up a gooey lung onto the floor. Besides, it’s 8:30am and already over 20 degrees outside and sunny. And when I come give your kids their English lesson, 90% of them will be sweating in their long sleeves, just like all the other classes. And several of them will still have colds despite their extra layers.”
So what’s it feel like, talking about health with Chinese who have a firmly entrenched TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) perspective? The excerpt below makes a fun illustration.
Jessica and I read stories out loud to each other. We’re in the middle of The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. Kvothe, the protagonist, comes from what’s essentially a pre-industrial Western culture. But he spends several months living among, training under, and learning the basic language and customs of the Adem, a closed and tight-knit, high-context race of philosophical warriors (think: kung-fu + ninjas + inscrutable East Asians). They consider everyone else to be barbarians and augment their conversation with specific hand-gestures. There’s little contact between the two cultures and they are mutually ignorant of the other’s very different customs and beliefs.
In the section below Kvothe and an Adem named Penthe have been sharing the crazy stories each of their respective cultures tells about the other’s. Kvothe is about to discover that the Adem don’t actually know where babies come from – in fact they have no concept or word for father — and he tries to set the record straight. When a Westerner and a traditionally-minded Chinese talk about health, this is what it’s like for both of them; the Chinese or the Westerner could be represented by either character.
Penthe chuckled. “You have the wrong word,” she said, rubbing at my chin. “A beard is what a man makes. A baby is something different, and that you have no part of.”
“We don’t carry the baby,” I said, slightly offended. “But still, we play our part in making it.”
Penthe turned to look at me, smiling as if I had made a joke. Then her smile faded [...] “Are you serious?”
Seeing my perplexed expression, her eyes grew wide with amazement and she sat upright on the bed. “It is true!” she said. “You believe in man-mothers!” She giggled, covering the bottom half of her face with both hands. “I never believed it was true!” She lowered her left hand, revealing an excited grin as she gestured amazed delight.
I felt I should be irritated [...] “What is a man-mother?” I asked.
“Are you not making a joke?” she asked, one hand still half-covering her smile. “Do you truly believe a man puts a baby in a woman?”
“Well…yes,” I said a little awkwardly. “In a manner of speaking. It takes a man and a woman to make a baby. A mother and a father.”
“You have a word for it!” she said, delighted. “They told me this too. With the stories of dirt soup. But I never thought it a real story!”
I sat up myself at this point, growing concerned. “You do know how babies are made, don’t you?” I asked, gesturing serious earnestness. [...]
She looked at me for a moment in stunned silence, then dissolved helplessly into laughter, trying to speak several times only to have it overwhelm her again when she looked up at the expression on my face.
Penthe put her hands on her belly, prodding it as if puzzled. “Where is my baby?” She looked down at her flat belly. “Perhaps I have been sexing wrong these years. I should have a hundred babies if what you say is true. Five hundred babies!”
“It does not happen every time there is sex,” I said. “There are only certain times when a woman is ripe for a baby.”
“And have you done this? she asked, looking at me with mock seriousness while a smile tugged at her mouth. “Have you made a baby with a woman?”
“I have been careful not to do such a thing,” I said. “There is an herb called silphium. I chew it every day, and it keeps me from putting a baby in a woman.”
Penthe shook her head. “This is more of your barbarian sex rituals,” she said. “Does bringing a man to the flowers also make a baby where you come from?”
I decided to take a different tack. “If men do not help with making babies, how do you explain that babies look like their fathers?”
“Babies look like angry old men,” Penthe said. “All bald and with…” She hesitated, touching her cheek. “…with face lines. Perhaps the old men are the only ones making babies then?” She smirked.
“What about kittens?” I asked. “You have seen a litter of kittens. When a white cat and a black cat have sex, you get kittens both white and black. And kittens of both colors.”
“Always?” she asked.
“Not always,” I admitted. “But most times.” [...]
Penthe gave me a serious look. “You are committing false thinking. You could as easily say two stones make a baby by banging against each other until a piece breaks off. Therefore two people make baby peoples in the same way.”
I fumed, but she was right. I was committing a fallacy of analogy. It was faulty logic.
Our conversation continued along this vein for some time [...] Eventually Penthe waved a hand to stop me, gesturing exasperation. “Do you hear your own excuses? Sex makes babies, but not always. The sex must be at the right time, but not always. There are plants that make it more likely, or less likely.” She shook her head. “You must realize what you say is thin as a net. You keep sewing new threads, hoping it will hold water. But hoping does not make it true.”
Seeing me frown, she took my hand and gestured comfort into it [...] “I can see you think this truly. I can understand why barbarian men would want to believe it. It must be comforting to think you are important in this way. But it is simply not.” Penthe looked at me with something close to pity. [...] “Sometimes a woman ripens. It is a natural thing, and men have no part in it. That is why more women ripen in the fall, like fruit.”
Pro Tip: Here’s a cheap cop-out that works, if you need to escape a conversation like the one above: “foreigners’ bodies are different.” This works. I’m not necessarily saying you should use it — I don’t like it because it’s not being straight with people; avoiding expressing your opinion and giving misleading impressions about your opinion are different things — but it does work. And it’s an explanation that goes back ages. In My Country My People, Lin Yutang relates how some Chinese doctors, upon discovering a Western medical text showing the heart on the left, concluded smugly that, ‘Aha! Barbarians’ bodies are fundamentally different from Chinese, whose hearts are on the right. And this is why barbarians have a different religion.’ (Those Chinese doctors had never bothered to dissect a cadaver.) I use modified forms of this excuse: “Foreigners aren’t afraid of ‘cold'” or “Foreigners can’t ‘get wind'”. or “We’re used to it. It’s not a problem for us.”
P.S. - The Kingkiller Chronicle is entertaining, but has (a lot) more (superfluous) sex and violence than we normally read. So don’t go download it and then come complaining to me!
More about TCM & healthiness with Chinese characteristics:
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 (空调病！), 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.