Tuesday, June 24, 2008

On the Mend

I spent all of yesterday massively sick—one of those illnesses so intense that in your moment-to-moment subsistence you are convinced that it has a not-insignificant chance of killing you, and alone in your apartment you consider texting a friend to have her check in the next morning, just to be sure you've not died of dehydration in the night, though in retrospect this shames you a little, as melodramatic—and while I am on the mend enough today to eat and leave the house, my plans for writing about the bandh probably won't materialize today.

That said, one of the interesting disparities between Western life in the non-West and Western life in the West is that here the exact terms of illness are not things to be kept hidden, are not improper. Within two weeks of my arrival here (which seems forever ago but in fact was only ten weeks ago) I was having drinks with friends at a bikas bar called Buzz, in Patan, when Isabelle, who works for Icimod, asked if I had gotten sick yet. I demurred, in the onomatopoetic sense of the word, saying only that I had been sick a little since I had arrived, nothing serious. When pressed, I said a little bit of gastrointestinal trouble, nothing more.

“It's okay,” my friend Gemma said, “we all talk about it here.” And so we talked that evening about taking your own stool samples, about the joys of solid stool, and about the fatigue of giardiasis, which, as I recall, Isa has had three times.

Of the (by my count) four essential functions of continuing existence—eating and drinking; breathing; sleeping; and shitting—shitting is the only on we consider, in the West, improper to discuss (save for with our doctor, where we are legally entitled to privacy). To air the particular peculiarities of a bowel movement is, at the least, uncouth, often the foundation for frat-boy humor; of a lack of bowel movement is a septuagenarian or geriatric cliché, the complaint of a would-be George Burns. Indeed, in English we lack a socially appropriate everyday word: shitting is obscene; pooping is juvenile; stool is medical jargon, a word I didn't learn as a synonym until I was 12 or 13 years old and a veterinarian asked about my cat; feces is technical and more appropriate to non-human animals. It's not that we lack the vocabulary to speak about shitting, but that we lack the lack of taboo.

It's interesting, I think, that this particular social construction is so easily discarded. Gastrointestinal problems are rife among expats here—everyone has a store of the anti-diarrheal Ciprofloxacin, and it's offered as you would offer naproxin or ibuprofen to someone with cramps or a headache. Doing so, of course, normalizes gastroenteritis, makes it not something to be suffered in silence. The temporary, or location-specific, relaxation of taboo has a social function too, one of bringing expats together in stories of our mutual biological distress. We are here adapting our culture, or cultures, however you define the term, not to the social milieu we live in so much as the geographical and environmental space.

I have of course spared you the details of my own situation; but because this is yet another place where, as a expat, I exist in the space between cultures, between cultural norms.

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