Ethnic health issues can’t involve nationalism

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/1 22:03:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT



There are many debates regarding the differences between Chinese and Westerners, some of great importance and some trivial. Can Chinese people drink ice cold water or cold milk like Westerners do or is it a Chinese myth that drinking cold beverages can hurt your health? In the minds of many Chinese these are significant issues - after all what's more important than what we put in our mouths?

This is not a new topic. In the 1998 comedy Be There or Be Square by Chinese director Feng Xiaogang, there was a scene in which members of a delegation from China complained to their local Chinese tour guide in Los Angeles that the hotel he put them in didn't provide hot drinking water. "America is not as comfortable as China. You guys have to cope," said the tour guide. "You should have been prepared to suffer before you come to the US. If not, you'd better not come."

That, at a time when the US was still much better than China in terms of available material comforts, was clearly meant as black humor. However, it is true that many Chinese like to drink hot water while many Caucasians frown up water that's not ice cold. And therefore, all hotels and restaurants in China provide hot drinking water, and those in the US often don't.

It was the case then and is still the case now. But with more and more Chinese people traveling to, or living in the US, the culture shock over the correct temperature for drinks has not died down. The latest wave in the debate was ignited by a May 14 entry on the WeChat account "drpei," written by Chinese pediatrician Pei Honggang. The post, entitled "Can children drink cold stuff?" argued that drinking cold water, milk or yogurt was not harmful to children's health at all.

The article attracted 1,600 comments, mostly opposing his views. Two days later, the doctor posted a follow-up article, expanding his conclusion from children to all Chinese of any age, and blaming traditional Chinese medicine for fooling Chinese people. As evidence, the doctor cited that "foreigners" drink ice-cold water all the time and do not face any negative effects. Both articles were clicked more than 100,000 times, a benchmark for super-popular posts on WeChat.

Traditional Chinese medicine, which has seen polarizing views among modern Chinese for a long time, seems to be the real underlying issue in this argument.

Supporters call it a jewel of traditional Chinese culture, while opponents say it's nonscientific nonsense that misleads patients and sometimes even kills people.

But the feud over traditional Chinese medicine aside, the argument invokes another thorny question - whether physical differences among human beings can set certain limitations on people of one ethnic group but not another.

This topic may not be a controversial topic in China, but it is more or less taboo in the US where the culture emphasizes equality in an idealistic way, making discussion about ethnicity or gender-based physical disparities a forbidden subject. Still, even to those who believe women can do whatever men can, disabled people can do whatever the able-bodied can, and a person's racial background should never determine what you are good or not-so-good at, there are still some clear medical disparities between different ethnic groups. 

For example, more than 90 percent of East Asians have lactose intolerance, which leads to annoying reactions after drinking milk (warm or cold) such as the creation of excess gas and bloating, while only 17 percent Finnish, 15 percent Austrians and 5-15 percent British have the same problem.

Celiac disease, which is caused by severe sensitivity to gluten, is a more common problem among Europeans and rare among East Asians. A recent study by the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University showed the disparity is still clear after immigrants from different regions moved to the US. Immigrants from Punjab, India have a high prevalence of 3.08 percent, compared to 0.15 percent among East Asians. There is also plenty of research showing that the prevalence of breast cancer among Asian women goes up after they live in the US for a long time.

This means that physical limitations not only exist but are decided by a complex matrix of genetics and diet. This, of course, doesn't show that Chinese are more vulnerable to cold drinks than Caucasians. But it can at least warn us that just because Caucasians or even second-generation Chinese living in the US can do something, this doesn't mean we can do the same.

In terms of health, neither nationalism nor political correctness should have a say.

The author is a New York-based journalist. rong_xiaoqing@hotmail.com



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