Sometime in April, I watched in horror as my husband pulled his shirt up. Sure enough, the rash had migrated across his chest up into his armpits, and even his shoulder.
“Oh, Sweetie,” I said to him. “I’m so sorry to see you this way.” I rubbed lotion all over the rash to soothe it, though I knew that as long as the pressure remained, the rash would only move once again.
In Chinese, he always called his condition shénjīngxìngpíyán (神经性皮炎), sensory neurodermatitis. Over the years, I came to know this — along with those sudden stomach aches John would get before a challenging day at school, and even his allergies — as a sure sign of my husband’s stress or anxiety.
I can count on one hand the times I’ve seen John cry, an emotional response that I pull out at least once a month — and sometimes, in the past months as we faced pressure from the discrimination, at least once a week. The strongest emotion I’ve seen from John would be what I might call frustration, but even that’s nothing compared to the anger I’ve flashed before him in the past. Instead, I read how John really feels through things like his spreading rash, or his stomach aches — things he referred to as somatization, the channeling of emotions into physical symptoms.
John mentioned somatization when he came across the idea during research about Chinese psychology: that Chinese might have a tendency to somatize, or complain of physical problems, when they experience psychological or emotional distress. Almost immediately afterwards, I mentioned his rash, stomach aches, and allergies — and John laughed in acknowledgement, that somehow he symbolized this very phenomenon.
But it’s not as if somatizing is just a Chinese thing. After all, when I get stressed, I don’t just show in my emotions — I also break out badly. In the past year, as I watched John weather the discrimination, he also watched my forehead become a war zone of acne.
Still, my acne can’t compare to John’s rashes. When we first came to the US together, his neurodermatitis flared up on his thighs, and turned into welts that took months to heal and even longer for the scars to fade. I still see scars all over his chest and arms from the past academic year.
But now that the year has ended and we feel even more hopeful, the neurodermatitis has faded away, leaving only a small patch on his bicep. Still, the challenges won’t end here — John must create an internship, and start that internship this fall — and, chances are, neither will John’s rash. That’s why I have more lotion stashed away, ready for another flareup. 😉