Being sick in a foreign country

I’ve been sick this week; nothing drastic, just a cold, and a nasty headache, but it got me thinking about being sick overseas. So many things are different, things you probably wouldn’t ever consider when making an international move. Certainly I didn’t think of many of them before moving here.

China is different to Australia. Big surprise there. I get sick differently here. I’m sure the pollution is a large part of that, but whatever the reason, it’s strange when even the way you feel when you have a cold changes.

tiff infomationGetting medicine is a little tricky in a new place – especially a new place with a different language, and writing system. In Beijing it’s possible to do it in English, but only by going to an expensive international clinic and paying premium prices for the medicines they sell. Even speaking Chinese pretty well, I don’t know the names of medicines in Chinese, which makes it hard to buy them in a Chinese pharmacy. In years past, all medicines were kept behind counters, so you had to tell them what you wanted – you couldn’t just look around to find something. Now there are more pharmacies similar to Australian chemist shops, so you can pick up boxes to consider them slowly. Familiar brands from overseas have started to show up – while the packaging is all in Chinese, the original brand is often written in English as well as in Chinese, so that helps. Regardless, the last thing you want to do when you’re sick is spend half an hour trying to work out what medicine might help out. For years I brought medicine with me from overseas. Now I have a few reliable brands and a few places I can buy them so I keep myself stocked.

Comfort Food
I think we all know how important comfort food is when you’re at home with a cold feeling sorry for yourself. Well, comfort food can be a problem when you’re overseas – because the food available is so different! I love Chinese food but it’s not what I first turn to for comfort. I think most of us go back to whatever we ate as kids – things often not available when you’re away from your childhood home. Quite telling in this department is that the youth I’ve worked with here, the ones who lived their whole childhoods in China but now live in their home countries, often have a list of Chinese comfort foods. One girl posted on facebook this week about rice and soy sauce being a comfort food. A whole bunch of them go nuts for a specific Chinese brand of bottled ice tea drink, or particular snack foods. As for me, I usually keep a stockpile of pasta snacks I bring to China with me – something I can make quickly and easily at home that’s creamy and tastes like Australia. In some places I’ve been able to order delivery of foods that fit the comfort food bill. In Wangjing I ordered from Annie’s Italian restaurant a LOT when I was sick – they make carby-creamy comfort food and are happy to substitute things that fit my food intolerances. The funniest thing, to me, is that my favourite comfort food restaurant now is a Cantonese place! I have never lived in Hongkong, or even southern China, and yet it’s dishes from this place I crave when I’m not feeling well.

One of the things I love about expat communities is that so many expats are happy to go out of their way to help out their friends – even the newest ones – because we’ve all been there. The fact is that life is different overseas – not always harder, but always different. Having help with the different and harder things is so huge when you’re sick. It’s something I didn’t learn for a long time, but now I rely on friends here to help me out in ways I couldn’t have imagined ten years ago. This week I actually asked a friend to bring me food – which she did, telling me she was happy I felt comfortable calling on her, and enjoyed being able to look after me in that way. Earlier this year, a friend called me while she was shopping to find out which vegetables are on my good list then bought a bag full of them and had her driver drop them off at my house. It was a huge blessing!

Normal life takes energy
This is the bottom line of living overseas. Everything is different – and it takes energy to roll with the differences. Perhaps it is less draining for my extrovert friends, but I assume it still takes a toll. Everything requires more thought – more forethought on how to do something, and more energy while doing it. You’re doing it in a second language, which requires more brain-work, but also in a second culture – so even with language aside, the way things are done is different. Some days it’s just hard work – more so if you’re tired, and especially if you’re sick. That’s why TLC from friends becomes so huge – because even going to the shop to buy vegies is hard.

So, if you live overseas, let me encourage you – give yourself a break. It’s okay that things are hard. And lean on others. Most are happy to help – because we’ve all been there.


4 thoughts on “Being sick in a foreign country

  1. I once came down with a fever and I really wanted to eat soup. Now soup isn’t hard to get by in China, but there’s no such thing as Austrian soup here (and I neither had the ingredients nor the strength to prepare it on my own). I asked my husband to make egg-tomato soup instead, not the same thing, but as much comfort as I could get.

  2. Get well soon! Sorry to hear you were sick over the holiday. I also have a stockpile of western medicine, but am slowly getting more localized. You are right, when you’re sick that is the time you least want to try new things.

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