Shui Tu Bu Fu: A Tale of Two Noses

Tissue box
Tissue anyone? My Chinese husband has sneezing fits in the US, I have them in his family home in China. And our only explanation is shuitu bufu.

Atchoo! Atchoo! Atchoo!

There was my Chinese husband, having a sneezing fit right over our sink. I gave him the usual “bless you” and worried stares of a wife, wondering if this was the harbinger of a bad allergy day for him. And he gave me his usual prognosis on why he had this sneezing problem in the first place.

“In Zhejiang, I never used to sneeze like this,” John lamented, blowing his nose. “I miss the warm, humid air of Jiangnan,” that south of the Yangtze River region, the land of fish, rice and moist air  that included his own beloved province.

It sure didn’t help that, in 2008, we moved to a high desert area in the Mountain West of the United States — what you might term a land of tumbleweeds, dust and dry volcanic mountains. But even when we lived in Cleveland, Ohio, right on Lake Erie, my Chinese husband’s nose seemed to ignore the humidity and moisture, and just sneeze away in defiance. Even worse, his skin became so dry and itchy that he scratched out two pear-sized welts on both of his upper thighs. It took an entire year for those welts to disappear.

The Chinese have a saying for this: shuǐtǔ bùfú (水土不服). Literally, it reads as “water, earth not adapt,” but a more accurate translation is “to be accustomed to the climate.” Even as I buy John herbal remedies to soothe his dry nose, I know the only thing that would make it all go away is a trip to his hometown, the one place his nose loves more than anything.

If only my own nose agreed.

When I step foot into the family home in rural Zhejiang, it’s as if John and I swapped noses entirely. Hours into my visit, I suddenly find myself reaching for more and more tissue, and then falling into my own rhythm of sneezing fits at the dinner table, or in my bedroom. Meanwhile, my Chinese husband — breathing just fine — looks at me with the same wonder I usually reserve for his own ailing nostrils back in the US. He’ll open the windows to ventilate the room, offer me hot water (the standard Chinese cure-all), and eventually — when he finds me flailing on the bed in a cloud of sneezes, tissues and cough drops — give me the equivalent of an allergy pill to calm my symptoms.

John and I love each other desperately, and are happily married. But if we ever tried to marry our noses, they would divorce faster than you can say “bless you.”

The only way we can explain it is shuǐtǔ bùfú — that John isn’t used to the climate in the places we’ve lived in the US, and I’m not used to the climate in his hometown. Sometimes it’s not much comfort when you have to watch your spouse doubled over in a sneezing fit — whether over a sink in the US, or in a bed in China. Still, a couple doesn’t have to sneeze together to stay together. And that’s why I’ll always be the one to hand John the tissue in the US, and he’ll be the one to hand it right back in China.

Bless that. 😉

Have you ever had the feeling of shuǐtǔ bùfú in China or outside of China?

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14 thoughts on “Shui Tu Bu Fu: A Tale of Two Noses

  • March 28, 2011 at 6:50 am
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    水土不服!呵呵,sounds interesting! would anyone tell what the word”sink” in the first sentence mean?thanks~

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  • March 28, 2011 at 10:04 am
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    I don’t know if this will cure allergy but I’m drinking real honey from the farm for months now and it really works for me this year. honey is good for anti inflammatory. I drink that everyday and mix it with green tea. Just say this yr , I do have to take Claritin D.

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  • March 28, 2011 at 10:07 am
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    Just say this yr, I DON’T have to take Claritin D. typo thanks

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  • March 28, 2011 at 8:36 pm
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    the same happened to me… when I came back to visit my family in the states for spring festival… I had sneezing, running nose, and itched everywhere…. I was going crazy the whole time.. but when I got back to … I hate to say it…”Zhejiang Province…” (your husband can smile) … the sneezing stopped .. and I had to take something for the Itchy dry skin… but I feel fine… I thought what the heck… but it is the climate change… I am afraid to go home now… I might peel my skin off my arms and legs… hehehe…

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  • March 28, 2011 at 8:45 pm
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    I m Chinese Malaysian. Here the weather is SUMMER ALL YEAR LONG. Its a tropical country. Whenever the humidity is way up high, people with allergy will exhibit the same kinds of symptoms seen in John’s case. Mostly it affects the Chinese. The Malays and Indians and the other indigenous tribes don’t have those kinds of problems. Green tea helps to a certain extend, but each person is physiologically different and going to the doctor is of not much help anyway.

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  • March 28, 2011 at 8:48 pm
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    LOL!!! I am suffering today actually!!! I live in the deserts of Inner Mongolia and it is a wickedly dry day today. Beautiful day… but dry. But my nose is usually fine. It is my eyes that do me in!!!! I still cannot fathom how anyone can wear lenses in this part of China!!! It took about two years to get used to living in a city just outside of Wuhan when I first moved to China. All that moisture… and now??? My once very oily skin is too dry!!! And I so know those itch welts you have spoken of!!! So not pretty.

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  • March 29, 2011 at 3:29 am
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    I went lol (in a positive sense) when I read your mention of 水土不服。The Chinese are masters of brevity. It remains me of 古香古色, literally old smells old colours to mean have a feeling of the old-fashioned or the old or ancient? With just four simple characters, the Chinese have an answer/explanation to your hubby’s sneezing problem. The wisdom of an ancient civilisation! P.S Hope your hubby can recover from water, earth not accustomed.

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  • March 29, 2011 at 11:43 am
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    Try eating cranberries – it works for me:-)
    The change of seasons usually cause the allergic reaction to many “transplant” Americans. Mine allergy becomes quite life-stopping before I start eating cranberries like crazy. The allergy, well, they are no longer a monster in my nose.

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  • March 29, 2011 at 12:08 pm
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    If you go to Thailand, it’s wise to eat spicy food and lots of chili to offset “shuǐtǔ bùfú ” mainly for stomach upset. You have to drink honey for like half a yr in order for it to work for you. I take anything that has high antioxidants , high in omega 3 , walnuts, pecan , fish oil etc to boost up your immune system. You have to have commitment or else nothing will work .

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  • March 30, 2011 at 6:12 am
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    This is great, though I feel terrible for BOTH of you to have such allergic reactions to each others homes! Same thing used to happen to my boyfriend when I lived at my mothers house. There was much mold and an unfinished basement(ie: dirt floor). Maybe just a claritin would suffice, though it is true EVERYONE is different. Even here in the states, I LOVE LOVE LOVE warm weather and enjoy my stinky, sticky, hot Philadelphia summers, but if I go down south(like Florida) I cannot put in my contact lenses or stop sneezing the entire time!!!

    水土不服….:)

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  • March 30, 2011 at 7:01 am
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    Oh gosh that sounds dreadful, The only minor problem my boyfriend encountered was dry skin because the weather here is quite cold and damp and wet. but he just uses some cream and the problem went away.

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  • March 30, 2011 at 9:04 am
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    Nothing magical. It’s the same reason why smallpox wipied out the vast majority of Amerindians, & why Europeans had such a hard time with Syphilis. We’re inmunologically less prepared to diseases from exotic lands, that’s all.

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  • March 31, 2011 at 9:18 am
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    This is so true…I’m dealing with very dry skin now in Shanghai. I just went to the chinese skin doctor and he gave me some mysterious goop I have to eat every night. Hopefully what works for Chinese will work for me too, but I’m a bit skeptical…Has traditional Chinese medicine worked for you?

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  • April 3, 2011 at 1:53 am
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    I am happy my boyfriend and I do not have this issue. When I visited his hometown (Shanghai) for the first time, my skin had no problem adapting, and I usually have sensitive skin; same for the country side of China.

    The only thing I noticed is Chinese people do not blow their nose when it is runny (at least my boyfriend’s family, including him, do not even though they now live in Canada). Is it the same for your husband and his family?

    It is interesting to have to blow your nose with toilet paper because they do not have any facial tissues around the house, like we Westerners do. I quickly learned from my visits to his parents’ place; it’s like walking around China: bring your own tissues, everywhere you go hehe!

    Reply

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