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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.