Tuesday, December 30, 2008

On sneezing

If you ever spend an extended period overseas, you're going to get sick at some point.

Realistically, you'll probably get sick even if you aren't overseas, but most of the time, you'll get off with the same old sniffles, or the same old sore throat - things that you're used to. Stuff your body's been through before, and if it's in the mood, it'll raze it right out, and if it's feeling a bit sluggish and really would rather just take the day off, well, you know where the cans of Campell's are. (Or, in my case, the world's greatest Chinese wonton noodle soup. Seriously, my grandparents have been known to drive an hour to our house and pick it up on the way when my brothers or I report a runny nose, just for an excuse to eat the stuff with us.) Whereas, if you go to Japan, or Europe, or even Canada - heck, even if you jump STATE - it's a whole new battleground.

No, wait, let's tweak the metaphor: the battleground, that being you and your immune system, is the same. But, well, suddenly the gleaming badges of the neighboring army riding in on white horses, the soldiers who shoulder their rifles square upon equally square shoulders and know better than to shoot before the agreed upon day, hour, minute in the agreed upon spot; suddenly, they're gone, and you've got the barbarians. And the barbarians are eating your dinner and taking your women and bashing you with rocks whenever and wherever they please, and your immune system is all hot and bothered and just doesn't know WHAT to make of all of this hoo-hah. All of this means that until the language is learned, the culture acclimated, and a truce arranged so that the proper battle lines can be drawn, you're stuck with steel wool shoved in your sinus cavity and down your throat and possibly in your eyes and brain. Oh, and don't expect your immune system to make peace with the locals any more quickly than you can.

Fun fact: there's a Japanese saying that, "A fool never catches a cold." Assuming that the reverse is true, and given that I'm currently on my third cold within a three month period, Einstein's got nothing on me!

So, let's review: Getting sick is a universal constant. CHILDREN getting frequent colds is a universal constant. Adults who frequently WORK with children, like English teachers, catching said colds with equal frequency is a universal constant. You know what isn't a universal constant? Nyquil. Airborne. Tylenol Cold and Sinus. My beloved Benedryl.

Oh, and the simple phrase, "God Bless You."

The need to hunt for alternative cold medications is a pain, but it's not unmanageable - I can speak and read Japanese more than well enough to get by, and I'm generally too lazy to take medication anyways. However, the lack of a reaction to sneezing still seems off. Proper manners are paramount to the Japanese education, with dozens of ways to express gratitude and apology, or to greet and part. There's something to say when you enter a room, or when someone else enters a room; when another leaves home, or when you leave home, and both are different from when you leave work; changes based on region, age, and hierarchy, as well as how well you know the other person. Many a foreigner has lived to tell the tale of being ganged up on by Japanese store clerks screaming, "Irasshaimase" (いらっしゃいませ) in domino pattern - once one starts, everyone else is sure to follow. It's only proper.

Yet, sneeze, and it's like nothing happened. Your sneeze is invisible. No "God bless you," or "gezundheit"; no "salúd," no "labriyut." Silence. Silence that's only occasionally shattered by another sneeze. (Or, in the case of some guy on the train last week, five more sneezes. And that was just before I changed trains. And not. One. Word.) It's bizarre, so bizarre. I've had to explain to adult students that, when I or any foreign associate sneezes, it is improper not to say something, let alone to keep chattering away as though nothing happened. Another time, I was sitting next to a Japanese man on the train, and he sneezed. Without thinking, I murmured, "God bless you." He smiled nervously, and it ended there. Maybe he went on to talk to his co-workers about this exciting, international experience, or maybe he could care less and forgot.

I've been here for almost 11 months, but like my immune system, there are some things that I just haven't figured out yet.

No comments: