Last Sunday, I woke up at 5:30 more tired than usual. But I’d skipped my run the previous three mornings and my body was pleading with me to let it move. So I closed my gate, waved goodbye to my early-riser Papa – he was already washing the family cars and motorcycles, a Sunday morning routine – and set off on my route.
I felt weak and lumbering, but assumed it was because I’d skipped so many days of running. After my loop, I met my Papa at the neighborhood field and we played some badminton, a game that I’ve sorely missed from last year in Java. I must be out of practice, I thought, because blocking a smash never used to tire me out like this. I let my youngest host sister play while I watched on the bench.
When we were finished, I returned to my house to get ready for church. I went into the shower fully intending to depart my house in 30 minutes. I came out of the shower with a fever and no intention of leaving my bed for the rest of the day.
For those first two days, Sunday and Monday, we couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. I had the worst body aches I’ve ever had in my life, a high fever, no appetite, and a killer headache that pressed on my eyes. My well-meaning Indonesian friends blamed my sickness alternately on:
- running and doing too much yoga,
- eating too little, especially not enough rice (my real family will balk at this one – “Kelsey? The family garbage can? Not eating enough?”), and
- returning home at the late hour of 10 pm in a light rain on the previous Friday night.
We all thought I had a bad flu, except that my nose wasn’t running and my throat didn’t hurt.
Monday night we finally went to the international hospital in Medan. The ER doctor saw me and ordered a blood test. The results the next morning revealed I was positive for the non-hemorrhagic strain of dengue.
The words “Dengue Fever” sound terrifying to a westerner. It is a tropical disease, typically found in densely populated areas where its carrier mosquito lives. Even though my friend, Anna, had dengue when we visited the Philippines last summer and I already knew the importance of platelet count and constant fluids, my brain still categorized dengue next to Ebola, Malaria, Yellow Fever, Rabies, and Japanese Encephalitis as a Very Scary Disease Reminiscent of Heart of Darkness Jungle Madness.
It turns out that non-hemorrhagic dengue is not nearly that serious. There’s no treatment for it, other than staying hydrated and the occasional acetaminophen for the pain. My skin erupted in the characteristic red rash, and I had my blood regularly drawn to monitor my platelet count. I was miserable for about 7 days, and that was it. Indonesians frequently get dengue during the rainy season, and my own headmaster and his family had it two weeks before. Of course, that didn’t stop my poor mother from freaking out.
Getting dengue wasn’t just a lesson in Tropical Diseases 101, or an initiation into the nitty-gritty of Indonesian life. It was an admonishment about cultural sensitivity and adaptation. It was a reminder of why I am spending two years of my life here.
I chose to be an ETA not because teaching English is my life’s biggest dream. Rather, I chose to come (and I chose to return) because I value the challenge of living in a different culture. I value it personally (how it can change me) and I value it interpersonally (how it can change the people with whom I interact — Indonesians, Americans, whoever). Adapting to a different way of living forces me to recognize a common humanity in people I perceive as different from me. This adaptation is different from traveling, because traveling gives me an “out”. When traveling, I can stay in hotels, or go to vacation destinations, where it is easier to maintain my way of life within a foreign place. Living somewhere, especially with a host family, means there is no out, and I am forced to accept that there is a different way of doing things than what I am used to. That what I have assumed to be true since childhood is actually something that has been nurtured within me, in the same way my host family has been nurtured along a different cultural foundation. Additionally, as the odd one out, I can never assume that my attempt at “big picture” thinking and cultural understanding is shared with the people with whom I am interacting – they are still within their culture, surrounded and reinforced by people that think just like them.
This seems obvious. Everyone knows this about cultural exchange. However, it is profoundly different and new when you are sick, and the cultural differences are affecting your ability to be sick and miserable in peace. When you are sick with dengue, cultural understanding requires a new level of patience from both parties.
I want to preface this by saying that I am so thankful that I have a host family. I don’t know how I would have gotten medicine, gone to the hospital, eaten, gotten money when I lost my ATM card, done anything without them. They were constantly brainstorming ways to make me better, constantly caring for and worrying about me, constantly driving me back and forth for my blood checks. They were wonderful.
Yet we had profoundly different perspectives on my sickness. For example, it is apparently bad to shower or bathe when one is sick. If necessary, one may take a warm water bucket bath. Hair washing is not permitted because it risks masuk angin – an elusive Indonesian sickness that is roughly equivalent to a cold or the flu, yet everything supposedly causes it. I tried to be okay stewing in my own filth, until my sweaty, itchy scalp woke me up on the fifth night of Dengue Week. Exasperated and itching, I ran blearily to my kamar mandi and took an overdue bucket bath at 1 am. I simply couldn’t handle being dirty anymore. Thankfully, my family was more amused than angry that I’d succumbed to a bath, although I did receive a reprimand for sleeping on wet hair.
Then, when my skin first erupted in the bright red rash, I was forbidden from using my air conditioner. My family thought I had kerumut, or an itchy red rash common in Indonesia. Proper treatment is to sweat it out. I spent a day doing precisely that, lying in the middle of my bed in dengue misery and pining for the air conditioner. We eventually realized that the non-itchy rash was a dengue symptom, and I quickly reinstated the A/C to fight my fever.
Finally, my constant nausea meant I never wanted to eat, and in the U.S. I often forget to eat when I’m sick; the return of my voracious appetite is always a sure sign that I’m on the mend. In the midst of Dengue Week, I was monitored as I force-fed myself rice (never enough) to keep my strength up and gulped fresh red guava juice to raise my platelet counts. I was never permitted to drink anything cold, again for fear of masuk angin. In the hot temperatures, my mouth longed for a cool glass of water instead of another lukewarm one. When I made myself oatmeal, light and easy on my stomach, my family looked disparagingly at my comforting bowl of warm mush. When I cooked myself vegetable soup, my host mom thought for sure I would throw up from the “disgusting” taste (aka no protein) and lack of rice.
These moments made me want my mommy. But they also made me frustrated at myself, for missing an “American” way of being sick. I felt ungrateful, especially because my host family was so clearly loving me and caring for me in every way that they could. I reminded myself, over and over, that chicken noodle soup doesn’t have a secret healing property – it’s simply our cultural response to sickness. And does going out in the rain and the cold actually cause the common cold? No, a virus does, but it’s still an irrational cultural fear. We, too, have cultural narratives about illness and disease that any Indonesian could poke holes in, but I cling tightly to those narratives anyway. The truth isn’t what comforts me, but rather my ownership of the narrative. It is my cultural way of doing something, and therefore it is comforting.
Living in Indonesia has made me nostalgic for weird things, things that I would never rejoice over in the United States. Okay, maybe I’d rejoice over a good cup of coffee, but non-white bread? Carpet? A cupcake pan? Using a knife to eat? Wearing a skirt that shows my knees? Not having to turn on the water in my house whenever I want to use the sink? Couches? Feeling cold to the bone? None of these things are inherently better than their Indonesian opposites – they are simply mine. They are part of me, things so banally associated with my American life that daily I don’t notice them. And, during Dengue Week, I longed for these weird things.
Now, my dengue is gone and I went to school today. I rode my scooter around town for the pure joy of being out of my bedroom. Healthiness has renewed and increased my appreciation for my host family, and I will buy them a thank-you treat on the way home. But cultural understanding is never easy, and hopefully this latest struggle with it has increased my patience for the next time it is tested.