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Update: Cultural Assumptions on Health April 19, 2015

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Uncategorized.
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This update is based on Issue 7, January 18, 2008 of this blog, which I searched for today after reading APRIL 17, 2015 in the New York Times — a gently self-mocking essay about entering a German pharmacy to purchase a product for foot fungus, carrying her cultural baggage of sensibilities formed in the USA. Since I had also written on this topic, in a post that is no longer online, I wanted to bring it back to share again, with a few revisions. 

Cultural Assumptions on Health

Featured imageThinking about the video clips of Jacques Tati and Rowan Atkinson from Issue 6 of this blog reminded me of how much of an intercultural experience involves physical reactions. The research we have done with Mitch Hammer using the Intercultural Development Inventory has brought home the fact that we often tend to minimize cultural differences by focusing largely on how, deep down, all human beings are the same. Yes, we are all physically similar, but how differently do we care for our bodies? I was struck recently at how, in spite of globalization, a pharmacy in another culture, for instance, feels foreign and familiar at the same time. Shelves of products to heal and soothe, to care for our bodies, a pharmacist who knows the drugs and will listen as you describe your symptoms, and yet the packaging is different from place to place. A minor difference or one with more importance?

I seem to always find myself in a pharmacy when traveling, though I don’t always find what I am looking for. A hair brush, in Groningen, for instance. Or nail clippers, in Andalucia. Or perhaps it was deodorant, someplace else. Essential components of U.S. personal hygiene are not always found in pharmacies, though my first instinct is to start there. And should I have a cough or a sore throat or an allergic rash, I will always go the pharmacy and ask to speak with the pharmacist, and typically I come away with an unfamiliar-looking medicine. In January 2014, in Cologne, Germany, my husband and I both came down with colds, and we didn’t want this to spoil our time with friends we were visiting. Instead of the usual pills or capsules we always purchased from New York pharmacies, after talking with the pharmacists here, we came away with a powerful and perhaps dangerous nasal spray. It seemed like a miracle cure. We strictly followed the instructions against using it for more than a week.

Cultural differences in how we care for our bodies and deal with illness are often larger than we might assume, and our attachments to our particular cultural patterns are frequently very strong. My experiences of illness as a child were not extreme, but the special tray by my bedside and the Jell-O, toast, tea, cola or ginger ale I was served when my stomach was upset have become equated with a quiet, comfortable convalescence. Once while in Brazil I became very ill and unable to keep any food in my system. The friends I was staying with lovingly cared for me, but with a very different set of ingredients, all quite unexpected and some, like the boldo tea, were quite horrible, I thought. What I craved so much was a cola or a ginger ale, and only this, it seemed, would cure me. I had to explain my strange medical beliefs to my friends, who chided themselves for not having thought of my customs, and quickly provided the needed beverage. Within a day, I was again able to eat, to take a walk, to go to the beach.

I have been lucky with my health generally, but I have seen enough illness to realize that no culture is entirely successful in its remedies. I have my own faith, somewhat shaky at times, in “western” medicine, but this doesn’t explain the documented power of the placebo against which all new medicine is tested, or my belief that I needed a cola to relieve my stomach distress.

I was recently talking with a colleague from Hong Kong who has lived in the United States for several years. She was fighting a cold and we were discussing the Chinese medicine she uses. She told me that it typically works for her, but never works for her American friends. But this time, the Chinese medicine wasn’t working for her, either. We wondered if there was a relation to the diet and the effectiveness of the medicine. Maybe Chinese medicine needs to work with a Chinese diet. But maybe it’s also the cultural assumptions we carry about what is effective and what we believe will work.

In the meantime, my colleague gave me some of her Chinese cough drops to deal with my cold and sore throat. They worked very well for me.


101. Not Alone on the Journey September 8, 2012

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Communication, Reflections.
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I am a woman who seldom asks for directions. Mostly I use maps, some of which are stored fairly well in my head. To a large extent I think of where I’m headed in terms of my general sense of its direction from wherever I am at the moment. Part of the great fun of traveling to new places is to test my ability to find them. But sometimes traveling is more than a destination, a map, and a plan. Sometimes it’s a process of sharing the journey.

Recently my husband and I in Brazil. Our trip included a balance of time for ourselves at the beach and time for visiting dear friends whom we hadn’t seen in ages. We arranged our own itinerary including several days with our friends and we reserved a rental car from there to head down to a beach place we’d rented. We’d even downloaded the Google Directions with step by step maps. We felt fully ready to head off alone on this portion of our vacation, and test our ability to find our way there.

We probably would have found our route based on our own prepared plan, but for our friends, it wasn’t good enough to just send us off on our own devices. Rather, the extended family was drafted to research our trip, including our hosts sister who works for a government tourism board and a nephew who regularly takes the route we were to take — a new highway that hadn’t yet made it to Google Maps, but was found on Google Earth. Armed with new maps, new directions including a listing of every small town along the way, and warnings about traffic laws we might not know about and potential labor strikes that could block traffic, we thought we were finally ready to say thank you and good bye to our friends, but other plans were already in place. Our hosts would drive ahead of us and lead us to the new bridge that led to the highway we should take.

We followed them closely for about a half hour, and then they pulled their car over and parked, so we pulled over behind them and got out of the car to thank them again and say good-bye. Then we learned that the nephew was arriving in a few minutes to escort us for the next leg of our trip, leading us down the new highway to a point where we’d only need to go straight south, to a point that completely coincided with our original instructions and where everyone was confident that there was almost no chance to get lost or to run into highways blocked by strikes, or other yet unspoken dangers.

In that final third of the trip, my husband and I talked about how normal it feels for us to make our plans alone and how strange to have an entire committee dropping everything to make our plans with us. Since we both grew up with the strong sense of individualism and independence that marks much of the culture of life in the USA, it is even a bit uncomfortable for us to have so much involvement from friends and their relatives in our journey. And yet it was that very sense of feeling welcomed and taken care of that made me want to visit Brazil again, and visit these friends.

I thought of this experience again when I heard the excerpt from former US President Bill Clinton’s speech at the recent Democratic convention:

You see, we believe that “We’re all in this together” is a far better philosophy than “You’re on your own.”

This exactly seems to be the crux of the matter and at the same time the dilemma. Many of us, myself included, are much more attracted to the ideal that we share rather than compete; that the crowd is wiser than the individual; that the more people included, the merrier. We may be generous to others, but we also still may feel more comfortable not asking for help, not depending on others, and taking our own decisions regardless of what others think.

I’m not sure we have to make this stark choice, or rather, we may truly need to be both self-reliant individuals and a people who come together to ensure a better life for all of us.

Issue 79. Structured Time September 13, 2009

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Place.
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AQUA_BOOKLast week I spoke to some dear friends from Recife, Brazil through an internet video chat: one of the many ways it has now become possible to stay well-connected with friends over long distances. In Recife, the temperature has started to creep up from the barely cooler July and August temperatures of  81 farenheit/27 celsius and so the opening of the summer has been declared and all on the same day, people flocked to the beach as they do every year, even though the previous day was every bit as lovely and warm. It just wasn’t summer yet. Here in New York at 40 degrees north of the equator where the change of seasons is more marked, the temperature is nearly the same but fewer people go to the beach now because the US Labor Day weekend marks the traditional end of summer.

According to Wikipedia, there are currently 41 calendars in use around the world, although this includes the fiscal year calendar and ISO weekdate. Each calendar has a variation on a leap year cycle to account for the time it takes for the earth to rotate around the sun, and there are various ways to determine when a new year begins. For example, Rosh Hashana 5770 in the Jewish calendar begins in less than a week. Other calendars begin the year with the vernal equinox. The different cyclical schemes used to correct for the rotation around the sun also mean that in some calendars an entire month is added to make the correction while in others it’s a more frequent additional day.

To return to the Brazilian calendar, which structurally is exactly the same as the US calendar, there are still differences. The names of the days of the week from Monday through Friday translate as 2nd Market Day through 6th Market Day, and all days may be abbreviated by their numbers. You don’t have to be in school to think of the year as having two semesters in Brazil, while in the USA, financial news is given by the quarter year. And while the US week starts typically on Sunday, for which reason the 7th day Adventists consider Saturday to be the 7th day on which God rested, in much of Europe the visual layout of the calendar week starts on Monday and many people think in terms of numbered weeks as much if not more than they do in months. The Iranian week starts on a Saturday and ends on a Friday. Variations of the Zoroastrian calendar include 30 named days in a month.

Even a day is not easily standardized. This article from Scientific American give some of the Western oriented history of our standards of time. It’s worth reading this article just to contemplate the idea even in the higher latitiudes, summer and winter days could both be considered to have 12 hours of sunlight, but that summer hours would then be substantially longer than winter hours. I feel certain that I would live differently than I do if I carried this concept of time, but just knowing that other ways to structure time are possible is liberating.

This liberation may explain why people who have had the experience of living in another culture often feel so profoundly affected by this experience. They have the choice to consider other standards, to know other realities and to understand how life is organized differently someplace else. And even if, as often happens, they return home to embrace more fully the familiar patterns of life there, they know better the value of these patterns they choose to follow.

Before we had to say goodbye and saudades, my friend and I talked about the way time passes. My friend asks me how it is possible that the years pass so quickly when the minutes pass so slowly. It has to do with missing friends and family far away, and about not having so many places that one has to be on a given day. I have been intending to return to Brazil for about 10 years, but each year it doesn’t happen.

But if I can count my hours by the passage of the stars by night or the clouds by day, or by the amount of time it takes me to read a good book or walk to the park and back, then surely there will be time to return to Brazil and to slow the passage of the years and make the minutes fly by.