JOK Notebook

Skin Struggles and Tummy Troubles

I've just finished another Skype chat with Kensuke, my Japanese-language partner, and this one was good. I notice that whenever we talk about feelings, relationships, or health problems, I thoroughly enjoy the discussion. I've also observed that if we talk about health, few of our terms match up well. 

Today, for instance, I wanted to say in Japanese that if I had to speak in front of the whole Diet (as he does on occasion, much to my amazement!), my nervous system would be a mess. I had a feeling it would make no sense to him if I translated "nervous system" directly, and I was right, but I gave it a go anyhow. Here's the word for that:

神経系 (しんけいけい: nervous system) 

I love that repetition of けい! Even when he and I agreed that 神経系 was the term I was looking for, I didn't know quite what to do with it in order to explain what I meant. How could I say that if I had to appear in front of seven hundred serious men in serious suits and serious ties, even saying my name would make every system in my body fire and pulse and twitch at intolerable rates? Of course, there was no way I could or should say that! I needed to simplify things greatly. What did I really want to say? 

That's one of the great gifts of trying to communicate in another language—realizing how muddy one's thinking can be and zeroing in on thoughts and words that are truly essential.

I told him that when English speakers refer to the nervous system, we aren't talking about the actual spinal cord (脊髄, せきずい) or actual brain (脳, のう), per se. 

That elicited a big "Huh?" from him, or the Japanese equivalent.

When we talk about our nerves, I said with a rush of clarity, we're simply talking about stress! That part he understood right away.

We compared notes on stress and how it expresses itself in our bodies. As it happens, both of us are struggling with major skin problems on our hands. I believe mine is eczema, but when I gave him the dictionary terms for that in Japanese, including 湿疹 (しっしん), he had never heard of any. That's usually how it goes when we talk about medical issues. 

In turn, he said this about his hands:


He repeated this a few times, and I didn't follow. I have to admit that whenever he said the beginning part, 手の皮 (てのかわ: the skin on the hands), all I could picture was a river (川, かわ) named ての! Thank goodness he finally wrote the sentence, but then I had a new problem: 

ボロボロ: ((1) worn out; ragged; tattered; battered; scruffy; (2) crumbling; dry and crumbly; (3) falling (in drops or clumps); scattering; (4) (physically or mentally) worn out; exhausted; (5) (coming to light) one after another)

Which definition applied? When he showed me Google images of red, irritated hands, I decided it was the first set of meanings. He added that his hands are 痒い (かゆい: itchy). Ah, mine are, too. But are his hands also swollen (腫れた, はれた)? Does the skin spontaneously open, as if there were scads of papercuts, and does it even bleed on occasion, as mine does? No, no, it's just 痒い, he said. 

When I had finished playing dermatologist-without-a-cure, I somehow turned into a gastroenterologist. That really put me in my wheelhouse, as I've had stomach problems of various sorts since infancy, often major ones. Even so, I've never quite known how to talk about GI symptoms in Japanese. I was therefore quite pleased when he gave me very clear and surprising pointers.

For starters, take this sentence:


おなか* (stomach); 調子 (ちょうし: condition); 良くない (よくない: not good)

This literally means "My stomach isn't in good shape," which I've always assumed could mean many things about either the upper or lower GI systems. No, he said. It almost always means "I have diarrhea." Really?! What an incredibly vague way to say that! Of course it's no surprise that people would want to be discreet, but still!

One can also say, "I have diarrhea," in these ways:


下す (くだす: to pass (stool); discharge from the body)


下る (くだる: to have diarrhea)

The more direct term for "diarrhea" is one that I've always found easy to remember, as I associate 下痢 (げり) with a Gary I once knew, someone I very much disliked.

Kensuke also mentioned this phrase:

I feel nauseated.

気分 (きぶん: feeling); 悪い* (わるい: bad)

As this literally means "feeling bad," it's another vague take on a powerful bodily urge, one I would expect people to talk about more precisely. But English speakers also say, "I don't feel good," especially when they're kids, so this phrase doesn't seem that foreign to me. 

Many years ago, I tried telling a language partner that I felt bad about a situation, and I used a similar phrase:


気持ち (きもち: feeling)

She replied rather condescendingly, "You're saying you want to throw up." Suddenly I felt bad about that situation on top of the original reason I was upset!

Anyway, both 気分が悪い and 気持ちが悪い are ways of talking about nausea. The latter can also convey that one feels grossed out or creeped out by someone or something.

Kensuke told me two more phrases for "sick to one's stomach" (if that is truly what one wants to say):

吐き気がする (はきけがする: to feel nauseated)

吐きそう (はきそう: feeling nauseated)

And this is indeed how both of us feel much of the time because we both have what English speakers call acid reflux. As Kensuke described his symptoms, I knew just what to tell him about the causes of the problem (a weakening esophageal sphincter), as well as do's and don'ts. (As with anything, if you love a certain food, you're going to have to stop eating it because it's the origin of all your problems. Simple and depressing rule of thumb!) 

While giving him guidelines, I felt like my decades of struggling with this problem were finally of some use. Actually, I felt the same way about my years of wrangling with kanji because I immediately understood this long term when he presented it:

逆流性胃炎 (ぎゃくりゅうせいいえん)

For a nasty problem, this is actually a beautiful word, particularly the first part:

逆流 (ぎゃくりゅう: countercurrent; adverse tide; regurgitation)     backward + flow

When people are unconventional, we might say that they're swimming against the current or bucking the tide. Isn't it nice to think of acid reflux that way?

The 性 in that word is generic, simply meaning "innate quality," and 胃 (stomach) is quite straightforward. But the duplication of 火 (fire) in 炎 (flame) will never stop wowing me. In this case, -炎 is a suffix that means "-itis" and indicates an inflammatory disease.

Truth be told, I don't think that 逆流性胃炎 completely matches "acid reflux." For "acid reflux; heartburn," Breen has 呑酸 (どんさん). That Japanese term makes sense to me, as it literally means "swallowing acid," which is the very feeling of heartburn. However, Kensuke had never heard of 呑酸. And when I plugged 逆流性胃炎 into Breen, the search results contained a slightly different Japanese word, as well as an unfamiliar English term:

逆流性食道炎 (ぎゃくりゅうせいしょくどうえん: reflux esophagitis)

Is that the same as acid reflux? I would probably need a medical degree to know, but the word certainly looks similar to what Kensuke typed, with 食道 (esophagus) in place of 胃 (stomach). That's close enough for me. Incidentally, I've always adored the term 食道 (しょくどう: esophagus), as the compound literally means "the food way"!

I told Kensuke that the medicine Zantac helps me a lot, all the while knowing that a pharmaceutical discussion would be useless, as the same drugs don't exist in each country. Our health systems don't even work in remotely the same ways; I'm always astonished to hear that he goes to a hospital to see a doctor. 

Well, we did find other common ground, in that our hands and GI systems are a mess. If that's not quite something to celebrate, at least I feel good that we managed to communicate about many things ... I think!

On the subject of stress and the toll it takes on the body, I'd like to offer a remedy—a long soak in the bath. I'm talking about the new essay 2136 on 呂 (ロ sound), which offers a great deal of information about the pleasures, history, and cultural aspects of the Japanese bath. Here's a sneak preview:

Catch you back here next time!


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