Monday, September 28, 2009

Masuk Angin

I wrote this for Harvard's PROJAK newsletter in response to the theme: Describe a superstitious belief that you follow, or somehow affected your life.

In the West, when we have a runny nose, a cough, a headache, congested sinuses, a sore throat, frequent sneezing, a fever, general weakness or any combination of the above we say we have "a cold." Our persitent use of "cold" is a historical anachronism from the days before germ (and virus) theory of medicine where we thought that "colds" were caused by being generally cold and wet. They can be co-incident (e.g. being cold and wet can supress your immune system to the point where a cold virus can gain a solid foothold), but that does not necessarily mean there is a causal relationship (i.e. in the absence of a rhinovirus, you're not going to get a "cold").

In Indonesia, people refer to one with the abovementioned list of symptoms as having "masuk angin." Literally this means "wind has entered." In addition to the list of symptoms that accompany a "cold", Indonesian "masuk angin" sufferers can expect to burp and, less frequently, may even have an upset stomach, with all its concomitant symptoms. The burping and/or farting is key, as it symbolises the "wind" trying to escape.

You can catch "masuk angin" by being exposed to wind or any sort of fast moving air. Common ways that this can happen include being in the direct airstream of a fan or air-conditioning unit, having your window open in a moving car, sitting on a motorbike without a jacket, being outside on a windy day and so on. While some expatriates in Indonesia like to make fun of the locals for this superstition, of course, this is no more ridiculous than people warning "you'll catch your death of cold" in the West.

Good ways to get rid of wind include eating foods or drinking tonics that are "heating", ("heating" being foods defined thusly by Chinese medicine, such as ginger, etc.) and getting massaged. There are various massage techniques to draw out wind - the most notable of which, "kerok," involves rubbing the skin with a coin until you have big red lines all over your body - but during all of them you (and your masseur) are expected to burp profusely as the wind is drawn out of your body.

Now, being the sceptical sort of chap that I am, I try not to buy in to either superstition. But being used to the Western concept of "having a cold," the idea that you burped when you had acute viral rhinopharyngitis seemed odd to me. I expressed my scepticism to Indonesian friends who just shrugged the sort of shrug that says "I don't care if you don't believe me, it's true."

Sure enough, the next time I got a cold, I became very aware of my burping. "Do I always burp this much?" "Was that a 'masuk angin' burp or an 'I ate my food too fast' burp?"

Sceptical folk like me are often very quick to dismiss traditions that seem to be based on superstitions. We often mistake "all we currently know" for "all we can know." There is some bullshit behind the Western conception of "catching a cold," but there is some useful practical advice in there too: "Don't go out when it's cold. It depresses your immune system and makes you vulnerable to passing rhinoviruses." No doubt, there is some bullshit behind "masuk angin," but there may well be wisdom in it too.

And, hell, who am I to presume that I know how to sort out the pearls of wisdom from the bullshit? At least (as far as I know) the traditional healing methods haven't been conclusively proven as having no impact like Vitamin C, which is commonly sold in the West as a cold and flu cure-all...

Until then, bring on the awful tasting herbal medicines and burping masseurs...


vand said...

hi John, what a nice article about "Masuk Angin" from Westerners perspective that you wrote here. I'm Indonesian, I got "Masuk Angin" since yesterday. I took traditional medicine named "Tolak Angin" (Anti-Wind :P) since I had painful experience with that Kerok-thing..and now I'm burping (and farting too :D) like crazy..but my body feels better than before.

mr_john said...

Yeah, I take Tolak Angin all the time...

yovie said...

hai john, its really good article of 'masuk angin'. I laughed a lot. I know for western people, this 'masuk angin' seems odd. but sometimes the odd things can make you feel better. thx for believing our 'cultural' medicine of indonesia. :)

Anonymous said...

I don't burp when getting 'masuk angin', 'perut kembung', or when 'kerokan'. I only fart. Next time you want to try smearing 'minyak kayu putih' (cajuput oil) all over your tummy and back when having 'masuk angin'. You can use it too for 'kerokan'. It works wonder! :D

ryuumajin said...

You can be as skeptical as you want, but you may want to consider this theory about "kerok".

Usually, having someone do a "kerok" for you, it will stimulate heat, as usually you will have balm rubbed on your back.

And yeah, it hurts mixed with tickly feeling, but the balm will be rubbed thoroughly, covering your body, and it will make your body warmer.

Afterward, of course, you have to wear clothes, and as the heat stimulated on your body, you will easily gets sweaty, and it is usually a good way to release the cold (or "wind", your choice, heheh) from your body. Therefore, you'll get healthy faster.

Unless the case is emergency, it usually works.