culture clash

A few months ago, a client arrived at my office. She was an Iraqi woman–a refugee of the war in her country. She had made it to my little corner of the planet by grace and the help of her three sons who she was lucky to still have in her embrace. One of her sons was present with her for the consult and served as our interpreter. She was about my age, perhaps a year or two older. She was referred to me for high cholesterol–which is a usual raison d’etre for getting put on my schedule. Though there are so many things the human heart can suffer from which may affect our health and hardiness, there are only a few we can easily measure and then neatly deem abnormal. Cholesterol and blood pressure levels are of course the most common. One spin of the sphygmomanometer or a few fatty drops in the blood are the determinants of our health risks. The regulation and control of these resultant measurements become the pressing story, while the real matters of the heart get deeply lost in the sauce.

My client with warm shining eyes beaming at me from under her headscarf had been treated for breast cancer a few years ago while still in Iraq and had not had much follow-up care since her odyssey had begun. She had only been in the United States for a few months. She was dressed in full Muslim garb, ensconced in a lot of fabric. Awkwardly, she adjusted her clothing to reveal to me some loosely wrapped gauze laying limply around her upper arm to contain the swelling of lymphedema. The consult contained fragments of conversation as I tried to piece together some semblance not only of her health history but of her saga of survival.

As I was engaged in my own fact-finding mission, and trying to figure out how I could best assist her in the short time I had, she was gesturing toward me while speaking in Arabic. While I was simultaneously trying to stay very present and yet trying to search for contact numbers of local resources, her son was gently interpreting her words for me. She was apparently commenting on my seemingly well-behaved body that has obediently stayed within the confines of acceptable shape and form. She referred to her own body with shame and regret.

As her meaning crystallized before me, the tears welled behind my eyes. This beautiful woman inhabited a body that manifested the pain of many inflictions. She had traveled half the globe to find a tiny sanctum of political refuge and safety. While living in the midst of unbelievable violence I am sure she lost a lot more besides her girlish figure. How dare she not tend to her weight and diet like I had while my government had torn her country asunder and bombed it to pieces. I beseeched her not to compare and mumbled my apologies while the irony of our human vanities swept over me.

With this turning of the year, as I pray for peace on earth, I will carry her story with me and wish her the very best.

To all of you, A  Happy and Healthy New Year.

2 thoughts on “culture clash

    • thanks, david. part of this encounter that i don’t think i portrayed adequately enough, was the intimacy of her gesture of revealing her arm to me. that people quickly bare to me either part of their body or their soul is always a surprise to me but one that i feel very privileged to receive. that we must sometimes trust a virtual stranger is a profound part of the human experience.


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