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?