Fun with Diseases
As a public employee in Japan, I get to have the 微妙な pleasure of a mandatory health check. On one hand, since I have had past medical problems discovered at check-ups, I really believe in the importance of the annual check-up. Furthermore, I’m lucky to be living in a country with good public health care, so I can get said check-ups without paying a lot. On the down side, as an “obvious foreigner” (does not appear to be ethnically Japanese; has an obviously non-Japanese name) in a rural town, doctors frequently have no idea what to make of me. Some doctors are nice and want to practice their English, which I don’t mind if I can understand them. Some doctors and nurses are rude and treat me like a child, referring to me as ~chan; refusing to call my name (my full name has all of 5 syllables, there is no excuse); refusing to answer my questions asked in Japanese.*
The mental stress of visiting rural doctors has made me want to avoid them as much as possible, even though this is one of the first times going to a doctor has been incredibly cheap and relatively easy.
But I digress.
Today I have to fill out a preliminary health survey about my medical history. As you can imagine from my background in media and gender studies and my relatively good health, my medical vocab is fairly crap. I can describe symptoms pretty well now—I’m dizzy, I have eye discharge, this is swollen, this hurts, why are you putting a camera in my nose?—but my knowledge of disease names is a bit lacking. Interestingly enough, though, I’ve managed to decipher quite a few just based on the kanji.
Here’s part of the list:
1. がん (gan): cancer
Now, this is interesting, because the actual kanji for cancer was nominated to be on the 常用漢字, or daily-use kanji, that is necessary for Japanese adults to function in society and is the goal for non-native speakers to become “fluent.” The kanji, which I actually know, is 癌, a mountain 山 of things 品 building up sickness (of 病気). The kanji did not make the new 常用漢字 list.
2. 高血庄 (kouketsuatsu) : high blood pressure
This is literally the same in Japanese and English. High 高い blood 血 pressure 圧. Score!
3. 肝炎 (kanen): hepatitis
Now, if you’ve studied Latin and Greek, you would recognize –titis as the term for inflammation and hepa- as liver. Most Americans haven’t studied classical languages, but know the term; it’s some kind of liver disease. The nice thing about the Japanese is that the problem is totally straightforward: liver 肝 inflammation 炎. The same goes for nephritis (jinen, 腎炎), the inflammation of the kidneys; and dermatitis, (hifuen, 皮膚炎), inflammation/irritation of the skin.
4. 糖尿病 (tounyoubyou): diabetes
This might be my favorite. Diabetics are people with sugar 糖 urine 尿 disease 病. (This is very close to the meaning of diabetes mellitus, a Greek-Latin combo.) Again, the Japanese is fun because it explains the symptoms of the disease if you can read the kanji.
This is, of course, the problem with having a high level of Japanese. If a doctor were to write out the name of a disease, I could probably figure it out. On the other hand, because my kanji reading is better than my actual knowledge of vocabulary, if the doctor just tells me a word, I don’t always understand. This is basically the Japanese equivalent of “book words” (words you understand the meaning of in English but can’t pronounce): kanji I can decipher but can neither pronounce nor understand immediately in conversation.
Me: Are the hand gestures you’re making an indication you want me to remove my shirt so that someone can listen to my chest?
Nurse: :continues to make hand gestures of pulling a shirt open:
Guess who didn’t get her heart listened to thanks to xenophobia? (Don’t worry, I went to the doctor when I went home to the US, too. My heart did not explode this year.)