Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Cultural Differences in the Doctor's Office

Going to the doctor in a foreign country. In our family this is usually my job, which is tricky sometimes because of our contrasting standards for an illness or injury requiring medical attention. For me it has to be an extremely high fever or severed limb and even then I'd rather give it another 24 hours and go in the morning if it doesn't clear up overnight. The Slovak, however, was raised by wolves somewhat hypochondriac parents and while he is pretty reasonable about his own health, it is natural to worry more about your children so he has a tendency to panic at the first sign of illness. It doesn't help that if his parents witness a single sneeze, they yell at us for getting the children sick. So I can understand that it makes him a bit jumpy.

I've had to take both children to the doctor this fall more often than usual, between routine checkups (the first year babies have a lot, plus K is about to have her 5-year visit) and assorted minor illnesses. Since we've now all had bronchitis (baby too) we've been a bit more careful with coughs and colds, since bronchitis is not fun. Over the weekend K was complaining of lower abdominal pain so I took her in Monday morning to make sure it wasn't an infection.

I am always a bit frustrated at the doctor's office because while I have a decent grasp of basic (regular person) medical Czech I can never remember the proper medical terms off the top of my head so I am never sure I've precisely described the problem in the way I would have in English. "I am a LEGAL translator," I always want to say, "I don't do medicine!" But I get the point across.

After feeling K's belly and taking a urine sample the pediatrician's main advice to me was to make sure she doesn't sit on a cold floor.

And that's where the cultural issues come into play.

Sitting on cold floor or concrete = infection is a very common piece of folk wisdom in this part of the world. I hadn't heard it before coming here, but I believe it may be somewhat of a tradition where I am from, too (anyone else heard of this?). I do not, however, believe that it is founded in evidence-based medicine. Unless it is and I just missed it, which is possible.

I don't mind the doctor telling me that, but it just serves as a reminder how deeply entrenched we all are in our own cultures (and generations - I think it depends on the age of the doctor as well as country of origin or medical training). I think medicine (causes of disease, treatments, germ theory, etc.) is probably the area in which I feel most foreign and most American, because I was just raised differently and it seems to be more deeply ingrained in me than, say, wearing shoes indoors or talking really loudly (two classic American behaviors).

There are a lot of other Czech medical beliefs that were new to me when I moved here. I can't remember them all off-hand, but a few include:

Drinking cold drinks gives you a sore throat. Iced drinks are basically just asking for it. I have been requested to put orange juice in the microwave to warm it up before serving. After it had been sitting on the counter for half an hour since I knew cold = bad.

Eating cherries and drinking water (together) will have you tied to the bathroom for the next several hours.

Combining certain types of food will have the same effect. The list seems to vary depending on who's talking.

When you have a cold you should wear a scarf around your neck. Because I guess your neck is cold? I'm not clear on the reasoning on this one.

Eating warm desserts will make you sick. The first time I brought my new husband cookies fresh from the oven (the preferred way to eat them in my country, or at least my family) he thought I was trying to poison him.

My mother-in-law does not allow fans or air conditioning to be blowing, even in the car in 40 C (very hot) weather, because they cause ear infections. Heat stroke, though, doesn't seem to concern her.

Walking around with an exposed lower back will give you a kidney infection.

Walking on a cold floor, or any floor, without sandals will make you sick.

When I moved to this country, I only knew "draft" (in the sense of cold air) from 19th-century novels. I had no idea it was a thing that people still talked/worried about, but it totally is.

And that's not even getting into the very specific ideas about raising children. I don't do dětský čaj or balení na široko (tea for babies and a special way of wrapping small babies to restrict their movement in order to prevent hip problems, more or less), which raises some eyebrows but my children seem to be managing without somehow.

I guess going to the doctor, when I can't get out of it entirely, may always be a reminder to me that I'm not in Kansas any more. On the other hand, a few months ago I woke up with a sore back after sleeping next to an open window, and my first thought was "...draft!"

So maybe I'll get on board with some of the above list someday, after all!


  1. I just came over from Perogies and Gyoza...

    Living in Japan, we get a bunch of different old wives tales about health.
    In summer, cold drinks make you sick...
    Cover your stomach so you don't catch a cold.
    You catch a cold from being cold

    There's a lot to do with children, but I don't have kids, so can't really comment on them.

    And, there's Fan Death. My (Japanese) husband refuses to let me run a fan in the bedroom in the summer because apparently, it'll kill us. Air Conditioners are okay, just not fans!

    It's all crazy to this Canadian!

  2. I love this post! My husband is from Costa Rica, and dealing with our son's health seems to be where we run into the most culture clashes. I'm surprised how similar the beliefs are to yours above, especially about the cold. Cold drinks are okay if the weather is hot and you aren't sick, but otherwise, watch out! I have also had to warm up juice in the microwave :)

    And walking barefoot is a really big deal. This is especially true when you're sick, but even if you aren't and it is the middle of the day in the summer, you never see anyone walking around without sandals on. This was a big issue during a recent visit. In the past they let it go if I didn't follow all of these rules (as long as our son did), but now that I am pregnant I couldn't walk around the house without socks AND slippers on. Hard to keep track of it all!

  3. You know what, I have heard so many similar stories from different parts of the world that I'm starting to think we North Americans are the outliers! Maybe everybody else is on to just doesn't come naturally to me, though.

    Thanks for the comments :)

  4. Ah, yes, yes and a hundred times yes! My husband is German but by the sounds of this post the "medical" fears seem to be shared across central Europe. The draft thing is incredible, he will complain at least weekly about some ache or pain that's from a draft (we live in Australia! What kind of draft is he thinking of? The same with the cold floor thing, every time our son gets sick in winter (which in my opinion correlates extremely well with exposure to other sick children at daycare) it is because I let him walk on the cold floor without socks.
    Ah, I feel a little better now!!!



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