Saturday, July 16, 2005

Not Surviving, But Thriving

To the Editor, The Seattle Times, 16 July :

Taking responsibility

Wow! It looks like Thursday's edition of The Times should have been called "The health-care edition." I read everything, the front-page article on the health-care-cost study and all three columns on the editorial pages. What I found to be conspicuously absent is Americans' abject failure to take responsibility for their own health. I'm certainly no expert in the field, but living in Europe and traveling extensively have given me the opportunity to compare how we live to those in other nations.

I can only conclude that our poor diets and sedentary, TV-watching, car-based, drive-through lifestyles have a far larger impact on our national health than anyone is willing to admit. Combine that with the American penchant to seek the easy way out with cure-all drugs while scapegoating segments of the population like smokers (more Europeans than Americans smoke, yet their overall health is much better).

While I can't argue that it's not vitally important to continue working on finding the best and most effective diagnostic and treatment methods to help those in need, I can't help but wonder how many people could avoid...hypertension meds entirely by simply putting the Big Mac down, shutting off the TV for an hour and going for a walk every day. A healthful lifestyle is more difficult and time-consuming than popping a pill, but we'll all have less to complain about and less to pay for by addressing the root of the problem rather than just treating the symptoms.

— Sean Conner, Seattle

My Two Cents

As I read the above article in today's on-line edition of the Times, a slow smile spread across my face when I realized I have somehow been hoodwinked into a healthier lifestyle just by moving to Thailand.

The first indication was the 15 pounds that magically melted away within the first three months of arriving. There are several likely reasons for this, which really don't take a rocket scientist to deduce...

For example, most of the time the elevators don't work in our eight-story building. When they do, they are unbearably stuffy with 15 bodies crammed against each other for the two to three minute snail's pace ride in non-airconditioned discomfort. So, two to three times a day I huff and puff my way up six and seven flights of stairs to my classes on the sixth and seventh floors (with 40 pounds of computer equipment, LCD projector, textbooks, and papers). I carry a loaded book bag on my back, and a heavy shoulder bag of electronics. What really puts the smile on my face, is passing up most of the students on the stairs. As I brush past them I hear "OY!"--an exclamation that means many things. In this case, probably, "There goes that mad foreigner again!" Enjoy it while I can. At 70 if I don't mention this experience, don't ask.

I walk at least a mile a day just to get around the campus. Everytime I catch a bus to the nearest large city, it's a one mile trek to the nearest bus stop. Inconvenient? You just build it into your schedule, and take something to shield yourself from the sun (hat, newspaper, umbrella, etc.). Add to this my daily one-hour workout at the university's well-equipped fitness center, and I do believe I'll live on for another week or so.

Due to the weather, and my physical activity, I sweat three or four litres (about a gallon) every single day. It's not unusual to have my clothes soaked completely, as if I had been caught in a rainstorm. Last Tuesday, I had four showers, and four changes of clothes. It is said that sweat is one of the best ways to rid the body of toxins. Well, my toxins must be heavy commuters--in and out in a flash! To compensate, I have to take in at least a gallon of water a day as well. Fortunately, bottled water is pure and cheap at about 24-cents a gallon.

Olfactory side note: Fortunately, the different type of deodorants available here are effective. In disgust, I finally had to throw away the four or five Mennen Deodorant sticks I brought from the USA--they just couldn't cut it. So, here, if you use Thai-brand deodorants, you can sweat profusely but not stink. The Thai are very fastidious about personal cleanliness as well. It's very rare you catch the whiff of anyone's body odor, despite a tropical climate, crowded elevators, and standing-room-only public buses. Furthermore, a Thai bathes at least two and sometimes three times a day.

Try as I may, I can hardly find mega-fattening, inexpensive stuff to eat. If I do, it's outrageously expensive. Snicker's candy bars are the same price as a full meal in a restaurant; about 40-50 cents. The REAL downside: they're about half the size of USA Snicker's bars, with half the sugar. Bummer. The ice cream is scrumptious, but one cone is also the price of a full meal--definitely a pricey luxury.

Probably the strongest indicator of better health is that my stress level is noticably WAY down from several years ago. Ringing ears is a thing of the past. I haven't had a stress-related headache or backache in over a year (I had them at least a couple times a month back in the USA). I believe the biggest reason is the "mai pen rai" society--"chill out", "take it easy", "don't let anything fluster you"--mentality. Another reason is the really very warm and sweet people I deal with every day. The Thai are truly gentle folk. Raising one's voice is a real no-no in this society. If you do, your level of respect drops about 50% or more. Any problem or crisis seems almost immediately diffused by a gentle Thai response. Even sticky or emotional negotations are carried out with a smile and soft voice.

In April, while vacationing in Chiang Mai, I witnessed a motorcycle collision between two teen drivers who were carrying teen passengers as well. One party was very definitely in the wrong. From a small side road, they pulled right into the path of the other motorcycle going down a main highway. A terrific impact with flying debris, and both parties spilled to the hard pavement. Both endured significant damage to the cycles, and the teens were mostly bruised and skinned up. I anticipated watching my first street fight in Thailand. On the contrary, not one word was said. Both parties, with a big smile (mostly from embarassment) picked up themselves and their damaged cycles, and walked off, pushing their mangled steeds in their respective directions. That was it. No, "What in the world were you trying to do???!!" or "Are you blind?" or "Call the police!" or "You're gonna pay for this!." Just a sheepish smile and a quiet parting. Amazing Thailand.

Undoubtedly, another reason for having such a low stress level in a foreign culture, is a sense of "belonging." I feel very highly valued by my friends, with most of them like family. I can walk into the homes or apartments of any these folks and feel at home. Even the American family I socialize with (the Baptist missionaries from Tennessee) smoothly fit right into the culture here, and they're so relaxing to be around. In addition, the students go out of their way to show the highest respect and honor to teachers, imparting that "valued" feel. They carry your books, bring your lunch, and I've even seen them washing teachers' cars and motorcycles.

Even total strangers are gregarious and welcoming. Today, I planted a little tree in the front of my duplex. A middle aged man I had never seen before (visiting my neighbor) walked over and got down on his hands and knees with me, assisting with the operation. With newly dirty pants and mud under the finger nails, he left with a big smile on his face. The tree was a gift from another neighbor down the road I only met today. I tried to pay her for it, but she would have none of it. All this kindness, from complete strangers--a soothing balm to an expat soul.

Granted, the Thai are not perfect, and certainly there are negative aspects of their culture as with any other culture. However, they've got the stress thing licked. The only Thai I know who are stressed out are those who've been educated in the west and try to bring the high-stress, high-power, high-roller lifestyle back to Thailand. They go nearly mad because they can't get everyone else into their own overdrive gear. They end up becoming abusive or leaving Thailand for good to start a Thai restaurant somewhere. It's hard to go it alone, when no one else senses the "urgency" that you do.

Despite the more dangerous traffic (rules are for breaking), the increased possibility of infection (communal-style eating and drinking), and the not-quite-UL-approved infrastructure (no electrical grounding in homes and schools, manhole covers that flip up when stepped on, etc.), I believe I've added at least a decade to my life. According to many health experts, stress is the biggest killer of middle-aged and older westerners, resulting in heart problems, digestive disorders, hypertension, stroke, and a myriad of other ailments.

At least if I disappear into a Thai manhole someday, it shouldn't raise my blood pressure. Too much.

And the adventure goes on . . .
JD in Thailand

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