Cold as Poison

26 Nov 2005

I’ve been doing occasional translation work lately. It produced this IM conversation with Brad:

> John: ARRGHHH… look what I have to translate into English:

>> 学生:老师,有一个同学还没来呢。[Student: Teacher, one student isn’t here yet.]

>> 老师:他生病了。 [Teacher: He’s sick.]

>> 大家:啊? [Students: What??]

>> 老师:他昨天到家喝了冰的汽水,晚上就发烧,拉肚子了。[Teacher: Yesterday he went home and drank cold soda. That evening he came down with a fever and got diarrhea.]

> Brad: hahahahahahahaha

> John: I hate that [nonsense]!!!

> John: fever AND diarrhea from a cold soft drink

> John: that stuff is poison in a can… just chill to activate the poison

> Brad: I’m sending you a long-ass Chinese email about “health” that was forwarded to me

> John: oooh, sounds fun

> John: hah… Thunderbird sent it straight to “junk”

> Brad: why do chinese people feel the need to make up bs explanations for their so-called health advice

> Brad: like if I say something about why chinese people tell me not to drink cold stuff, my manager or co-workers will say something like “most chinese people don’t eat or drink anything cold”

> Brad: so I ask why all the convenience and grocery stores have refrigerators full of drinks and ice cream

> Brad: apparently, young people are the *only* customers!

> Brad: and the reason they don’t get sick is because of their westernized diet…kfc and mcdonald’s

> John: what is that supposed to mean?

> John: that the traditional Chinese diet makes them weak?

> Brad: I guess

> John: later on in that translation comes this line:

>> 他已经打了针,吃了药,退烧了。 [He has already gotten a shot and taken medicine, and his fever has gone down.]

> John: wow, way to treat that damn cold soda

> Brad: did they warm up the saline?

> John: hehe… they poured it from a thermos

[Translation note: In order to avoid intercultural confusion in this particular translation, I translated the first part with “he ate something that upset his stomach,” and the later part with, “he has already taken some medicine for it,” as getting the fever, the diarrhea, and the IV were not at all important details in this case.]

I’m a reasonable guy. I don’t reject all Chinese conventional wisdom. Some of it is very accurate, and some of it makes sense even to an unbeliever like me. For example, I’ve had the “cold drinks cause stomach pain” idea explained to me in this way: “The body expends energy maintaining a constant temperature. Cold liquids, upon entering the stomach, require the body’s energy in order to be heated to the same temperature as the body.” Yes, this makes good, thermodynamic sense. But when something goes too far and completely goes against (1) my personal experience, and (2) Western scientific/medical knowledge, I’m going to by mighty skeptical.

I have to admit, though, once or twice since coming to China I’ve eaten or drunk something cold and then gotten a stomach ache immediately thereafter. I can’t explain it. It’s as if living in China and eating Chinese food day in and day out warps my physiological reality. Yikes!

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Da Xiangchang Says: November 26, 2005 at 7:14 am

    Yeah, that idea–cold drinks causing sickness–is pretty dumb. However, I’d say the DUMBEST dietary practice has to be this low-carb Atkins diet that millions of Americans are following. This Chinese idea about soft drinks doesn’t sound so stupid after that; for one thing, soft drinks are really not good for you, though I doubt they’ll make you sick.

  2. I had a friend who did have to be hospitalized after growing ill from drinking a soda. However, it was the fact that the store he purchased it from had kept a case of ammonia on top of the soda cases and one of the bottle leaked ammonia on the tops of the soda cans that turned out to be the culprit…not the fact that the soda was cold.

  3. And once or twice I’ve eaten something cold and almost gotten hit by a car immediately afterwards. So what? Almost certainly you’ve eaten something cold in the States and gotten a stomach ache afterwards but didn’t connect them because you hadn’t been introduced to this silly “cold is evil” idea.

    Eating cold things does temporarily reduce your body temperature, which can be a bad thing in cold weather I suppose… I spent most of the summer drinking cold water and having my wife’s parents constantly concerned that I would fall over and die because of it. I didn’t, but I think they still think I will, someday.

  4. Cooking with my housemate, who’s from a small village in Fujian, we’ve had some interesting conversations about food-induced illness. From a young age, he’s had it drilled into him that there are certain foods that just aren’t eaten together if you don’t want to keel over dead. He doesn’t really believe it, but he still can’t bring himself to cook the foods together just in case.

    DXC: I think fan death is probably at the top of my list of wacky health scares.

  5. Yeah, I drank soda every day in class. Someone was always asking me why. I read that if you drink cold water it burns more calories, so if you’re on a diet you should drink it cold. Something like either 4 or 8 glasses = 300 calories burned…

  6. hehe, sounds like the theory of leaving the window open all day thru Hangzhou winters, because “its good for you”, or, my all time favourite, the interview I saw on CCTV 1 during SARS when the interviewer asked the doctor it was true that smoking killed the virus, so you should chain smoke all day……I thought the doc was going to smack him across the face on national TV for his idiocy

  7. ChenXi, that’s the most interesting trivia I’ve heard all month! Definitely true to some extent. Although I wonder how much…1 kcal raises a liter of water 1 degree C (I remember from High School!), so one 600mL bottle of soda maybe 35 degrees below body temperature needs at least 21 calories to incorporate it (.6 * 35 degrees) – on the other hand I have no idea how efficient the body’s process of heating cold soda is.

    Sorry for this incredibly nerdy tangent but if anybody knows more it would be interesting to hear, at least for me.

  8. Actually John, I have a very recent experience about the above… haha this morning, I went to get a drink of water before going back to bed. It was tap water (you can drink that stuff straight from the tap in Sydney – it’s clean enough, but it was cold). When I went back to bed, I got a tummy ache straight away and had to go to the toilet. Ended up with diarrhea.

    I guess when you are on an empty stomach and you drink something really cold, thermodynamically, it can have a dramatic impact on your stomach/large intestine.

  9. Because I’m evil I used to get on the bus, (down in Hainan) and open up the window (because Hainan is totally hot, yo) just to see how many people (in 100 degree weather mind you) would start fake coughing and giving me dirty looks. I would always make eye contact with them, and make an “oh, I see” gesture and then lower the window even lower–more coughs more dirty looks. Of course, I did all of this while sipping on the coldest beverage I could find. Oh yes, I laugh in the face of death.

  10. Yep, those cold liquids will do you in. The doctors in Chengdu tried to convince me that the hernia on my stomach was directly caused from drinking too many cold liquids.

    Needless to say, I elected to wait and have surgery on it until I was back in the US.

  11. Cold drinks did create more phlegm and cause me to cough more though.

  12. Must be that all the big colleges & the pro football teams are trying to kill off their players by providing iced Gatorade during the games. Think so?

  13. Michael Max Says: November 28, 2005 at 7:55 am

    Well, as a practitioner of Chinese medicine, I’d have to say that this whole “cold” thing does make sense.

    Not to say that ALL people that drink cold fluids will get ill. BUT, if you have a tendence to stomach problems, cold fluids will definately mess with your digestion. (if you don’t believe me, and you have stomach problems, try NOT drinking cold fluids for 2 weeks. Drink either room temp, or hot. Then go back to your cold fluids and you will understand what I’m talking about)

    Also, cold, as in cold winds and drafts can definately help to bring on a cold. Check this out, especially in the fall and spring, if there is a big wind storm, in the next 3-4 days you will notice an increase in people with the common cold.

    just a few of my observations from practice. By, the way, women that have painful periods can usually make them better by applying heat and worse by applying cold. And as Hardcastle pointed out, cold drinks often make phlegm worse, and coughs worse too.

  14. When I played soccer the team was forced to drink room temperature water, and warm is really best. Since your body is 98.6 degrees, if you drink or eat anything hotter or colder your body will use energy to convert whatever you’ve ingested to the proper temperature. I’ve drank ice water after playing sports, and it makes my gut hurt. Like brain freeze but in your belly.

  15. I have two different theories as to the seemingly inexplicable fear of all things cold:

    1. Because for as long as anyone can remember, people have needed to boil the water before drinking before it is safe to drink. Someone along the way started the old wives tail about cold drinks causing severe illness to ensure that water was boiled.

    2. Word association. You know the fear of four because of it’s close pronounciation of death? Perhaps there was some similar such superstition at some time because of “bing” ice and “bing” sick. Unlikely, but possible. More likely than me getting the plague from my next can of Pepsi.

    I have submitted both of these theories to Chinese people that I know, and both have been scoffed at, as though what I was suggesting was absolutely proposerous.

    I further explained that in the West millions of people drink cold drinks every day and are not affected in the least. Truth be told, in the hospital some doctors will actually feed you ice chips!

    “Chinese people’s bodies must be different.” Was the only answer I received.

  16. Rob,

    Someone (I forget who) has told me that anthropologists have found your reason #1 to be the case for cultures all over the world. Unboiled water (associated with “cold”) gives diarrhea. Boiled water (associated with “hot”) does not. Those concepts die hard.

  17. Matt,

    What I’ve heard conflicts with what you say.

    A hard workout causes your body to heat up past its normal temperature. It needs to cool off (which is part of the reason you sweat). Drinking cool water (not ice water) assists your body in cooling off without shocking it. [info]

  18. Doom – i do not see why you think that is so amusing. the draft from a window on a bus in hainan is likely to cause all kinds of pneumomatic symptoms. In a region full of many contagious ailments. By opening the window you let these come in from the dirty countryside. It is much better to let the air inside circulate among the passengers on the bus, so it will get refreshed by their own lungs.

  19. M. Zhang must be working under the assumption that no one on the bus has a respiratory illness ( an unlikely assumption!). On an intercity bus trip, I had the misfortune to sit next to a very sick man who hacked, coughed, sneezed, and spit for the entire 3-hour journey. I was scared to breathe. I don’t want to “refresh” air that is concentrated with the germs of fellow passengers.

    This “coldness” is an important health concept among Asians, isn’t it? When I first arrived in Korea several years ago, I noticed that women wore hose under their shorts, and I’ve seen Chinese women do it, too. It doesn’t appear to be out of modesty as the shorts are often super short and tight. My women friends and I wondered if it was to avoid “leng/naeng,” or coldness.

    Soda in general is nasty and should be avoided hot, warm, or cold.

  20. I must concur with what M. Zhang says about Hainan. The only time I went there was with my (future) wife to Sanya over the Spring Festival, and within 2 days of retruning to Shenzhen, I came down with Chicken pox. Chicken pox! 27 years old and I have Chicken pox! I had been exposed before and never contracted it. (Sucks too. all the stories about swelling and whatnot are true. I have 2 kids now so no long term effects thank heavens!)

    John, I have this argument all the time with my wife about “cold” and getting sick. I argue the scientific conjecture that it is pathogens that make one sick. Standing out in the cold alone will not make one sick, but it could lower ones body defenses temoporarily and a cold could ensue. But she is adamant that the cold makes you sick. 没办法。

    The funniest one I heard is that if a cold wind blows on your belly, the cold will get in through the bellybutton and you will get diarreah.

  21. Staying with my in-laws in deepest Sichuan this March, the weather was unseasonably warm (for UK anyway). Drowning in warm water and gasping for a cold drink I lighted upon the icecream kiosk. Perfect. That was when my mother-in-law stepped in. “You’ve been complaining about the heat too much, icecream will make you ill”. They all had icecream, I had to watch them eat it 😐

  22. The “cold is bad concept” is a Chinese wisdom drawn from experiences of the ancient times and of the aged age group (meaning >35 before penicillin but >60 now). So one has to put this in prespective. In poor sanitation environments and to the vulnerable populations, cold IS poison. If nothing else, lowering limb temperature slows circulation significantly and colder (and damper) air irratates the pulmonary system. Then there are all those rheumatoid conditions! However, in young adults such effects are hardly detectable and certain Western peoples are more conditioned towards cold food/drinks than are traditional Chinese. The problem, is that the older generation Chinese tend to teach and apply this wisdom blindly. And then you guys, mostly young, ridicule the concept, also kinda blindly. You don’t feel the delicate effects now but I tell you that at least some of you will as you age. Why do you think retired folks in the States as a rule move to Florida and Arizona?

  23. M Zhang: Sorry for thinking that cursed “cold air” was amusing. My crude understanding of air, circulation, lung refreshment, and pneumomatic symptoms will probably be the death of me. I just hope that before I am finally overcome with consumption or the plague from countryside, somebody as learned as yourself will be there to let my blood with leeches.

    PS My air tastes good, too.

  24. Grizle, you were probably better off not to eat the icecream. Every time I ate ice cream in Chengdu it was followed by diarrhea within a few hours. Probably has something to do with all the bacteria and the unsanitary conditions which it is produced.

  25. “It is much better to let the air inside circulate among the passengers on the bus, so it will get refreshed by their own lungs.”–M. Zhang

    I could run this by any number of western doctors and they would totally disagree.

    “Standing out in the cold alone will not make one sick, but it could lower ones body defenses temoporarily and a cold could ensue.”–Luo Dawei

    This is more of a reason to avoid the cold, IMO.

    But more importantly, when it’s cold, people tend to huddle together more and are in closer contact than in the hotter weather. This makes it very easy for cold and flu viruses to jump from person to person–through respiration, coughing, sneezing, etc. Also, when it’s cold, your nose naturally starts running, if you are touching the door to the subway and then wiping your nose, you transfer microbes into your sinuses and get a cold.

    I think this accounts for why most of us get sick in cold weather, than just because cold magically makes us sick.

    If the open window on doom’s bus is in Hainan and the air is full of carcinogens from exhaust and dust, then the coughing fit you get from that is a totally different problem than infectuous microbes, i.e. the cold virus.

    I still like hot liquids. Especially in the winter time. I like the thought of it roasting the cold viruses in my throat as it goes down. My first day in China, my gf’s uncle in Guangzhou told me, “Don’t drink cold liquids with oily foods. You’ll get sick.” I’ve always followed his advice.

    Even though Uncle may not have been able to explain it to me scientifically, I do agree with Gin that there’s some wisdom to those traditions and some of them are around for a reason.

    G

  26. Personally I go with empirical first-person evidence as much as possible. The other day a friend had to stop playing in the midst of a tennis match, her stomach was killing her. We could ascribe it to the vicious intimidating pressure of my power tennis on her psyche, bad pastries, or the cold water drunk after having had an apple. Guess which reason was agreed upon by all. Okay, works for her.

    I on the other hand I recall glory days of sports and Super Big-Gulp 7-Eleven Iceees in 100 degree heat with never a stomach pain or stitch. Ice is a glorious thing and will never make me ill. Works for me.

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