An Ode to Old Wives’ Tales

It’s strange being told the reason for some bodily phenomenon by someone from another culture. The advice always comes in the same cookie-cutter, old-wives-tale, assured-because-my-mother-told-me-so fashion: you need to drink hot water, or you’ll get sick; you need to wear more clothes, or you’ll get a cold; you need to see a traditional Chinese doctor—Western medicine is overrated; you have to drink tea to stay healthy; it is better to eat medicinal foods than to take medicine in pill form; you should always take a walk after a meal; don’t eat in restaurants—it’s unhealthy; don’t drink coca-cola or other beverages—you should only drink water; never drink anything cold, especially not with ice; ice? in a drink? are you crazy? you’ll get sick and die!

The universal Chinese cure for everything—ranging from the common cold to a broken leg to a divorce—is to 多喝点水! (duo he dian shui), or, in English: drink more water! It is the anthem to which each Chinese soul steps in unison, a billion three-hundred million people sharing this common cultural value. No, the Chinese do not all concur about the virtues of Communism or the glory of Mao Zedong; instead, the only thing they can all agree on is this one infallible principle, by which one merely ought to drink plenty of hot water. If you can follow this sagely advice, all ailments will leave your body faster than a foreigner can figure out how to spell and correctly pronounce ‘Genghis Khan.’

While I do understand that drinking a lot of water is very healthy and that Coca-Cola is unhealthy, I fail to understand this predominant concern with the temperature of things. In the classroom, it can be 70 degrees inside but if it’s cold outside, my students will all continue wearing their heavy winter coats for the duration of class. When, in the heat of a lecture, I decide to discard a sweater, opting to downsize to a single layer, I am greeted with the gasps and shocked, pallid faces of concerned Chinese youth. It’s as if they’ve already begun to grieve about the sealed fate of their pitifully misinformed foreign teacher—chronic illness and a certain, early death.

I can only guess that this phenomenon arises from the fact that the majority of Chinese people are either raised by or in close proximity to their grandparents. From a young age, the people of the People’s Republic are indoctrinated with the primordial fears that the elderly have of things like the cold (after all, the gray-haired members of the human project lose body heat at a rate far higher than adults or children do), handed down from grandparent to grandchild for millennia. It makes sense, therefore, that my young students were baffled at the fact that I would wittingly remove a layer during the winter season.

We just have a different understanding of the word. The winter, for me, is a season dictated by whether I am outside or inside. If I am inside a heated room, it ceases to be winter there in that moment. The idea of winter still pervades my senses, and I am much more likely to consider drinking eggnog. But as far as the physiological side of my body is concerned, I follow the ambient temperature, not a psychological idea of what the temperature should be. But for the Chinese student, it doesn’t matter how hot the room is—the notion of winter has cemented itself firmly around the student’s frame of consciousness. Refusing to let go, the cold takes on a demonic persona: it tempts one to get comfortable, to be tricked into disobeying old grandma back in the village. Yes, the cold is all in your head, there’s really nothing to it…go ahead, relax, take off your coat and stay a while it seems to whisper. Ever the misguided foreigner, I am easy prey for these daemons of the arctic.

But these Chinese values have gradually become instilled in my daily habits. After just a year and a half, I now only drink hot water; I try to wear a sweater inside until I get so hot I can’t bear it anymore; and I drink as much green tea as possible. This shift was a conscious one at first, where I would say to myself ha! look at you, drinking hot water! who do you think you are, Lawrence of China? But then, gradually, it became a part of my repertoire—something that went unnoticed and became so indispensable to my everyday life that to ignore the advice of my students was to fall prey to some East Asian ice-god’s malediction.

Now, when I get sick, I inevitably come to the conclusion that my body’s cosmic balance is off somehow—that if only I hadn’t gone outside wearing just one layer under my jacket—if only I hadn’t opted to drink coffee instead of green tea the day before—if only I hadn’t lazily decided to drink that cup of water it in its lukewarm, anemic state: then all of my maladies would be gone, left back in America where people are fat and overmedicated and addicted to Coca-Cola and ice in their drinks.

As it turns out, these students were here to teach me something. Grandmothers of China, I salute you!


3 January, 2013

2 thoughts on “An Ode to Old Wives’ Tales

  1. Will- who would ever think that the kindergartener drawing chartruese shaving-cream artwork in my kitchen would develop into this Mark Saltzman/Ansel Adams-like chronicler? Whew and wow! Reading from Alex’s IPad and savoring all your insights, honesty, chutzpah,…

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