Monday, January 2, 2017

The Geography of Madness by Frank Bures

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you're having a great start to 2017! My first book for this year is one that I totally misjudged but still turned out to be amazing. From the cover and title, I thought that this was going to about different strange illnesses around the world, but it turned out to be about culture in general.

The author's journey started when he went on a year-long exchange to Italy and came back, experiencing what most of us will realise is culture shock. For the author, this culture shock, this realisation that other people have different ideas of what is cool and normal set him on a long quest to understand koro (or suo yang in Chinese), the disease that makes men believe that their penises are retracting into their bodies and that this will cause them to die. To try and understand this, he travels all around the world, from Nigeria to Singapore to China.

By the way, Singapore was a destination because we had a koro epidemic in 1967, where 469 men reported their penises were shrinking (these are reported cases, so the actual number may actually be higher).

And through this journey, the book starts to give us a sense of how culture, the stories we tell ourselves and each other, can affect our body and mind. As the book puts it:
Which is exactly how stories work: First, they make things possible. Then they make them familiar. Then they make them real.
Despite this book not being what I thought it was, I really enjoyed it. It articulated the feeling of living overseas, and of coming back and realising that no matter how hard you try, things have changed. Home has moved in a slightly different direction from you. And when I go back, I will have to decide how many of the habits I pick up in Japan I will keep, what I will modify, and what I will have to leave behind.

I would definitely recommend this book to others, especially to those who have lived overseas for a period of time. It is a surprisingly thoughtful book that has an original take on a feeling that is often very hard to put in words.

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