Sunday, February 24, 2008

Getting Colds in Taiwan

If you’re from some northern clime, from Finland or Maine or Ontario, and planning to move to Taiwan, you’ll probably imagine before the move that one advantage of living on the island will be that you won’t have to deal with colds and flus anymore. The cold and flu season is winter, after all, and semitropical Taiwan doesn’t really have a winter to speak of. But I can tell you from personal experience and that of many others: you’re going to be sorely disappointed, friend.

One of the oddest suprises this particular semitropical island holds in store for newcomers from the West is how often they will get colds or flu. I’m not sure if it’s the humidity or the population density or something else, but the fact is that during the first year here, regardless of the relatively warm weather, the average Westerner will come down with four or five vicious viruses, often like nothing they had before when living in, say, frozen Nova Scotia. Why is it? And usually by the second year the colds are less frequent, but still can be quite nasty. But again: why is that?

The colds and flus of Taiwan are bad enough, but what makes them even worse is the reactions of people here. It is a standard of American wisdom not to give advice to others unless you are specifically asked. Taiwanese thinking on this seems to be the opposite. You come into the office feeling terrible, just wanting to get to work, and immediately your Taiwanese coworkers start in. “Did you go to the doctor yet? You didn’t go to the doctor? Why didn’t you go to the doctor?” “It’s because you’re not used to the weather here. It’s the weather: you’re not used to it.” “Don’t drink anything cold, especially not orange juice. Why are you drinking that? Hey, I just told you: don’t drink that.” “Don’t eat such and such: it will lower your body temperature. You should eat such and such, but not such and such.” “You need so and so; you shouldn’t such and such.” “Here. This is a map to a good clinic. When can you go? You really should go.” And on and on. And on and on again. And then on and on, and more people come into the office, and they have something to say too. Until your headache and congestion seem the least of your problems.

Of course the Taiwanese tendency to give advice shows concern. Your coworkers are trying to show you they care about you. For the average Westerner, however, it is nothing but annoying. Doubtless it’s because of our over-developed sense of self-reliance and individualism. Listening to all their advice, one can’t help but smile and think: “Who the hell are you to tell me what to drink and not drink? Just because you’re Chinese you think you know how I should take care of myself? The last time you got a cold, which was two weeks ago, I didn’t lecture you, did I?”

Another problem is that one simply doesn’t agree with their advice. For one thing, the fanatical prohibition against citrus. “Don’t drink orange juice! Don’t drink lemonade!” They somehow think the citric acid in the orange juice will irritate a sore throat and so will somehow make the cold worse. But the cold, as we know, is a matter of the progress of a virus. The soreness of the throat is merely a symptom of the cold; it is not the cold itself. Yes, it’s probably true that cold drinks are not good when one has a cold. But if the orange juice isn’t really cold, then it can do nothing but good: it’s liquid, it contains vitamin C, etc. Still it’s useless arguing such points with them: if their mamas have once told them not to drink orange juice, they will stick to the notion forever.

And their: “Quick, go see a doctor!” “Have you seen a doctor yet?” “Oh, my God! Why haven’t you seen a doctor?” “Here, let me draw you a map to the clinic.” Doctors, as we know in the West, cannot cure a cold. Doctors can only confirm that you have one and then give you something to make the symptoms less troublesome. But the drugs they give--these too are not necessarily healthy, so maybe it would just be better to let the cold take its course, no?

And the doctors here, regardless of what you have, will always prescribe antibiotics along with the other things they give. This is bad medical practice, as anyone who knows anything can tell you. Antibiotics can do exactly nothing against a virus, and prescribing them when they aren’t needed will only serve to make them worthless when they are needed.

The other day I was in the metro waiting in line for the train to come. A somewhat short Taiwanese man, aged around 40, was going down the line of people earnestly speaking a few sentences to each of them as they waited. He was speaking softly in Chinese, and I couldn’t quite pick it up, but it had something to do with health, with the heart and the body’s circulation system. When he got to me, he switched to English: “Excuse me. You should always go to bed before ten o’clock. It’s better for the heart and blood circulation. So remember: go to bed before ten, okay?”

These are the exact words the man said to me and this is all he said. And so: without a by your leave or any kind of self-introduction, a man in a metro station took it upon himself to tell me when to go to bed! If it were a Western country, I’d be sure the man was a lunatic. Here, he qualifies as just a bit on the eccentric side.

But how did I react to him? Did I ask him who the hell he thinks he is and tell him to go fuck himself? No. Since I’ve been here in Taiwan a while, I know how to react. I smiled, said, “Thank you,” and continued waiting for the train.

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