The lecture Magda remembers concerns explanatory models for making sense of health and illness. For example, growing up in East Aurora, New York – a cold and snowy place in winter – we all knew that going outside in freezing temperatures with wet hair would lead to getting sick. And, having had frequent colds during winter, this theory was confirmed over and over. Similarly, I remember an anthropology professor talking about living in Tanzania and trying to eat oranges whenever she felt a cold coming on … then being roundly chastised by her host family for causing herself such harm: ‘Everybody knows you don’t eat such ‘cold’ foods when you have a cold! No wonder you’re often sick.’
The specific story Magda remembers concerns an explanatory model that Hungarians use to understand the cause of respiratory ailments: eating and drinking cold things. I was introduced to this belief early in my fieldwork. Whenever I took a big slug of Diet Coke right from the fridge my landlady (who generally followed me into the kitchen to watch my activities) shuddered and warned me to be careful or I’d get sick. At first I assumed she was concerned about the chemicals in Diet Coke, so I ignored her and kept drinking. But that wasn’t it. Every time she coughed, even a little clearing of the throat, she’d sort of mumble: ‘I must’ve drunk something cold.’ Once my language skills were strong enough to fully grasp her mumbling, I realised she was warning me against the coldness of the Diet Coke, not the chemicals. And since I was often unwell while living with her, she had frequent reinforcement for her belief. I thought this may be an old world, peasant belief of my landlady’s, but come summer time in Szeged (where I lived in Hungary, see Introduction), I realised it was much more widespread.
One of the joys of living in Szeged was the ability to walk the beautiful, tree-filled city centre on summer evenings, enjoying the fantastic ice cream. Every evening in nice weather the city filled with pedestrians; young couples, whole families, elderly people, everybody was out and about, many of them with an ice cream cone in hand. It astounded me how long Hungarians could prolong the experience, without ice cream melting down their arm. It got HOT in Szeged, 45 C [113 F], and yet hundreds of meters from any ice cream parlour there they were, strolling down the street, slowly licking a well-filled cone. Meanwhile, I’m working my tongue frantically just to keep ahead of the drips, finishing my two scoops long before I even exit the city square where I bought it! In order to keep themselves healthy, a whole nation of people has developed the skill of slowly licking an ice cream cone, while hapless foreigners either choke it down in an instant, or suffer the loss of face of having ice cream running down their arm…and the inevitable summer cold, too!
But you don’t have to leave the English-speaking world to experience a plethora of differing explanatory models, as I learned moving to Australia from the US.
Where I grew up, houses are hermetically sealed from October through sometime in April or May, or whenever people get around to taking down the storm windows. Keeping out the cold is not only economically and environmentally sensible but healthier as well. Having been here for nearly 10 years, I can only imagine the horror of most Australians when confronted with these sealed storm windows! Australians fear the closed window like Hungarians fear cold drinks: as a source of illness. Constantly closed windows mean ‘stale air,’ which is dangerously unhealthy.
I currently live in Melbourne and it never drops below freezing, but in winter it is cold enough to require heating our apartment during the day. I used to ask all the time (in a less than even tone, I admit), ‘Does it really make sense to open the window every night just to turn the heat on again every morning?’ I’m thinking: wasteful, costly, unhealthy – it’s cold at night! But, as I have learned, these are nothing compared to the ‘real’ risk to your health of breathing stale, foetid…unhealthy air.
Nearly 17 years together and my Australian-born partner and I still haven’t internalised the others’ explanatory model. Instead, we compromise, windows open more than I want, closed more than she wants: both knowing that our own logic is the healthier and more sensible of the two. Sometimes I think that our differing concerns about the apartment’s atmosphere causes one or the other of us to feel unwell at times when there is no physical cause, such is the power of our explanatory models…no different, really, from sorcery or witchcraft – belief being the potent facilitator. A blog entry for the future?
Have you come across an explanatory model that differs from your own? What is it? I’d love to hear about your experience!