• Tag Archives stigma
  • No qualms, no boundaries

    Culture shock is one thing but the slow adjustment to the idiosyncrasies of another culture over months and even years is another. One of the oddest parts of slowly adjusting was having stereotypes affirmed or denied; even with knowing a belief is a stereotype it’s still a little odd to see it contraindicated. For instance, in some stereotypes of Chinese people you often see that they are quiet, sometimes even shy, and polite. However, that isn’t completely the truth in a general sense—they can be quite loud.

    One of those deeper realizations you begin to learn after living abroad is that what constitutes being polite or rude is not always the same among different cultures. In my experience and limited knowledge into the inner workings of the Chinese culture some actions that are rude in the West are not rude here and vice versa. For a Western person some topics are matter of crossing boundaries between people, but these are often different in other countries. So in this context, I want to share with you my experience into what is culturally accepted with comments about others appearances particularly where it relates to their body.

     

    Thanks, I wasn’t Aware

    Funny how sometimes people dont think you are aware of your body and how much space you take up.
    Funny how sometimes people dont think you are aware of your body and how much space you take up.

    I am an American woman as so many of you know and as anyone who has seen me, you know I am also overweight. While I am overweight in the Western eyes, to the Chinese the extent of my overweight is even more extreme. So for a culture that believes pointing out one’s faults (to a certain extent) is actually helping that person, it is even more necessary for my weight to be pointed out or at least commented on. It is often viewed as a fact and thought that it shouldn’t sting or hurt because it is a simple fact.

    An example of this would be when I took a Chinese class at a university in Guilin the teacher—a very sweet and wonderful woman—was teaching us about how to describe people and items. So of course the easiest is to point things out in the classroom. So some of the classmates were tall, short, short hair, long hair, beautiful, nice and of course skinny and fat. The teacher pointed to me and said that I was fat like her followed by a huge smile of endearment towards me. She did not even think about how it might be hurtful or annoying to me, because it was a descriptor just like if she had said I was wearing a black coat or have blond hair. Although, I was slightly offended she was such a sweet and caring person I couldn’t be mad at her especially since it was obvious that she didn’t mean it to be mean or hurtful.

    A public service announcement

    Obvious that I am overweight but I have other traits that I LOVE. Like my blond hair and blue eyes.
    Obvious that I am overweight but I have other traits that I LOVE. Like my blond hair and blue eyes.

    Other times Chinese people (at least in my experience of where I’ve been) love to comment on appearances with both good and bad qualities. I have two examples for this. The first happened while I was walking with a Dutch friend of mine who is absolutely the quintessential Dutch woman: tall, slender, beautiful, big blue eyes, fair skin, and blond hair. So here we have 2 western women one short and fat, the other tall and skinny, and both fair skinned, blue eyed, and long blond hair. She was extremely fluent in Chinese and over heard some women following us talking about our different body shapes between the two of us and also in comparison to their own bodies. They also spoke a lot about my friend’s big, beautiful blue eyes. So she turned and responded to their comments, which freaked them out because most foreigners do not speak Chinese.

    A more recent example of this was the other day in the elevator at my apartment complex in Shenzhen. Micah and I were heading out to meet a friend for lunch. I was wearing a tank top since it has been unbelievably hot recently. Already in the elevator was a man and woman. The woman proceeds to talk to her male companion about how my skin is so white. Very white. She said this many times and I believe spoke about my freckles pondering about how I got them but this is where my Chinese is really bad. After she apparently exhausted those topics she turned to Micah and I still speaking to the man and said “Though they are both very fat”; just a simple statement of being for her. I almost said something about that being rude, but decided to hide under the assumed guise of ignorance she assumed I had.

    You would think this might be mostly because I am overweight and the impact of being overweight is felt more in China since the Chinese body tends to be so much leaner and more slender then a healthy fit western body. However, this is not the case always. A Chinese friend of mine was telling me about how during one of her trips to Korea she fell off a curb and broke her ankle. Her parents proceed to tell her that if she wasn’t so fat this would not have happened. After she returned home, she received many messages from other family (even cousins) telling her that she should lose a lot of weight. Although, it bothered my friend because she has more western thinking then eastern thinking, she understood culturally where it came from (but was still mad about it). To be honest, my friend could lose a few pounds but not more then 5-10 pounds at the very MOST. Obviously this is not enough weight to cause her big enough problems to result in her fall.

    Norms and mores are relative

    What cultures see as wrong or right or indifferent can be very confusing
    What cultures see as wrong or right or indifferent can be very confusing

    So the lesson is in how different cultures perceive things. The Western culture usually has more qualms about pointing out a person’s flaws (unless they are intentionally being cruel or are just oblivious), whereas Asia tends to point these out as a measure of care or from a desire to give a helping hand or even in a simple descriptor. It does make one think about how very sensitive America has gotten about terms. Is there value in walking around on egg shells when something is obvious? It is true that I am fat, no one can deny that, so should I get upset when it is used as a simple descriptor? I don’t know that this can really be answered, because there are so many factors in both cultures that would have to be considered.

    However, it is more in the heart of person where the intent of a statement matters. I do know that terms become wrong when they speak of someone being less valued as a human because of some trait. Being called fat would bother me more if I could understand if a person was merely describing me or wanting to help me by pointing out something I need to work on versus someone that was saying I was less valued than them because I am overweight. Is that what some of these people here mean to say? Do they really mean to judge me as less worthy or less of a human because I have extra body weight or are they merely being honest about describing me as overweight? Honestly, I have no clue sometimes but I do not think that in a general sense it is not meant to be rude or cutting.

    I have definitely learned to be more self-possessed and learned to take things in stride because 1)why sweat the small stuff, 2) why should I feel bad about myself because others don’t like it, and 3) it has never been a secret that I was overweight, its not like I can hide that! So my best advice if you travel or even face comments or thoughts in your country, take pride in what you do and do your best in all areas including taking care of yourself; but don’t stop truly living for another’s description or criticism after all they are not responsible for your happiness and should have less impact on your life to affect it negatively

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  • Living with Epilepsy in China

     

    Epilepsy is often caused by electrical disturbances. (Image source: aboutmodafinil.com)
    Epilepsy is often caused by electrical disturbances.(Image source: aboutmodafinil.com) 

    Imagine that you are walking down the street when your thoughts suddenly become sluggish and thick like feet walking in a muddy creek bed. Then you realize you can’t feel much of your body and the edges of your vision are beginning to slide into a gray fog ever so slowly. You take a breath to calm yourself, but something else, something other than your own mind hijacks your thoughts and an icy panic runs up your spine, while the world around you begins to tilt and turn like a twisted, tormenting theme park ride.

    This is what the beginning of a seizure feels like, at least some seizures for some people, like myself. For me this is normal. While I can’t say you ever quite get used to the confusion, the fear, the pain (both mental and physical) and the hijacking of both your mind and your body with varying levels of awareness, I can tell you that it is a struggle that I am well equipped. I have lived with seizures all of my life and have seizures nearly every week (sometimes more often), even at 29.

    There are many limitations to having epilepsy or other seizure disorders; however, the challenges and the limitations take a different turn when one moves to a foreign country. My husband and I have been living in China for 2 years now. China is a wonderfully vast country full of cultural idiosyncrasies, interesting foods, an old culture, a complicated people, amazingly beautiful lands, frustrations, joys, wonders and even mysteries. I love living here, but it is often a minefield rife with dangers for someone like me – someone with seizures.

    The triggers, my mines

    One of the most common triggers (things that cause seizures in those who have seizure disorders) is flashing lights. This is generally called photosensitive seizures, meaning you are sensitive to light and, in this case to light patterns. So I have to be extremely cautious walking around popular squares or areas of cities at twilight and nighttime; because if there is one thing China likes it is anything that will get your attention. Rapidly changing and moving

    The district we live in (Nanshan, Shenzhen) at night. (image source: www.flickr.com/photos/johnas/9650254268)
    The district we live in (Nanshan, Shenzhen) at night.
    (image source: www.flickr.com/photos/johnas/9650254268)

    images on huge LED screens liter these common areas and cause me a plethora of issues. These can range from a severe headache to twitching/spasms to even a full seizure all dependent on how much light directly catches my eyes and the duration of exposure. Adding to these mines, there are often string lights or runner lights that are flashing around doors or signs for shops, hotels, stores, restaurants, and other misc businesses that would like to have flashy neon adverts.

    Another trigger for me is crowds and lots of chaotic noises. I know, I know, most people ask me, “Then why in the world did you choose to move to China of all places”?

    es it is true that China is often perceived as being the motherland of chaotic crowds and the cacophony of noise they release, but the simple answer is that it’s not like that everyday everywhere. I came from a small area with a low population, but even there I sometimes had to worry about crowds like in crowded restaurants or special sales at superstores. Or even in day to day living at busy universities. You can’t escape crowds if you want to be a part of a society at large and not live on a farm in isolation.

    So I adapted and developed a strong fighting spirit along with a keen sense of observation. With a world so full of dangers in the environment around you and inside you, at all times you must be sure of where the safe areas are, where the exits are, and possible aids (i.e. something to drink, dark places, quiet places) and learn a great deal of physical discipline. This is how I walk through China in my everyday life. I step around crowds or focus on counting my steps so my brain is occupied and, therefore, less able to take in bad stimuli if I have to go through crowds. I wear headphones a lot so that outside sound is muffled or my music drowns it out.

    Epilepsy Stigmas in China

    You might ask, “Could you ask for help?” The answer in America and other countries is a hesitant “yes,” I could, for the most part; however here in the East there is a rather strong stigma that pushes those with seizure disorders to be silenced. I learned very quickly through experience and reading other people’s stories online that I must keep this a secret or risk some fallout. The stigma can range from fear of it somehow being a contagion that could be inflicted on other people—which elicits fear and sometimes verbal violence—to being a symptom of some kind of darker psychological disorder hinting at possible dangers or violence everyone around.

    Other stigmas from less developed areas revolve around seizures being some kind of trick or punishment from an external source such as spirits, karma, or even bad luck. Thus, if you are being punished by some higher power, then you have done something to warrant this and should be given a wide berth.

    Madness, possession, contagious disease, cosmic punishment, psychologically disturbed, irreparable human, mistake, broken, reject, and subhuman are many of the labels thrust upon people with seizures in this society. They are often told they should never marry nor should they hold a job. And of course, children are out of the question.

    The isolation and sadness resulting from the stigma in China is disheartening.
    The isolation and sadness resulting from the stigma in China is disheartening.

    People diagnosed with epilepsy, before marriage, are often denied marriage certificates. Often people are fired if they have a seizure at work. The person or even family members are often shunned and ignored in their own neighborhoods. If the one suffering from seizures is a child, many other parents will not allow their children to play with “those children” for fear of some sort of damage or repercussion falling on their children.

    I have been lucky enough to not have anything but minor seizures out in public or make it back to my apartment in time for a larger seizure. I have to be careful of not getting overheated or overly tired, and I have to be careful about the foods I eat too as some chemicals (MSG) and foods (pork for me) can worsen or even cause seizures.

    I am truly blessed because I grew up with parents that were patient and loving even in the grips of a child suffering from a disorder they didn’t understand well. However, many children and even adults here in China do not have that same level of support. Orphanages here are filled with children who have various disabilities or disorders; they are thrown away for falling short of “perfect.” Teenagers and adults are often sent away or kept in seclusion and denied even the basics of a proper education.

    Recently, there was a man in Hubei who was sentenced to a life in prison after a seizure resulted in a fatal car crash while he was driving. Yes, he should NOT have been driving, that is undeniable, but he will never receive treatment, support, or good medicines in prison. This is an example of how China deals with “disruptive” disorders, they tend to put you somewhere and ignore you in hopes the problem will go away.

    The Hope for Seizure Disorders in the Future

    There is hope for the future of epileptics and other disabilities in China.
    There is hope for the future of epileptics and other disabilities in China.

    Now please don’t think that things are hopeless, because they are not. In the last 8 years, China has made some remarkable strides in trying to get more information out there about seizure disorders for public consumption and to delineate disorders and disabilities. There are disability groups and agencies that are popping up all over China and some colleges are now trying to aid students with special needs. Though, I admit the progress is slow, but it is wonderful and heading in the right direction.

    I would like to end this blog about living in China with epilepsy by explaining that while life for me is limited and often more difficult than some people, I have more freedom and independence here than I did back home. Things are more closely placed here and the public transits are remarkable. Back home, we had lots of land so everything is so spread out that walking is not feasible. Public busses were unreliable and often not running, subways didn’t exist and taxis were too expensive if you can even find one. In China, I am able to go anywhere I want, when I want, and how I want. For the first time in my 29 years of life, I am able to taste what being an independent adult tastes like and this is one of many reasons I feel freer here in China than in America despite hiding my “dirty little secret.”

     

     Note: This blog was submitted to another expat blog as a guest blog. You should definitely check out her blog, because it is awesome! I would also like to thank Amanda for her help and also the suggestion in writing this blog.

     

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