We Asked an Expert to Explain, Medically, What Happens When You Catch Masuk Angin

Is it a medical fact? Or a cultural belief?

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08 January 2017, 11:00am

Photo by istolethetv via Flickr

Indonesians are afraid of the wind. Well, not really. But also, yeah, really. I'm talking about masuk angin—a seemingly local-only illness that happens when winds, or chills, make us feel sick. The name, "masuk angin," literally means "enter wind," and, I guess, it's something a lot of us fear—if only a little bit, like Westerns might fear catching a cold. 

That's because, as far as symptoms go, masuk angin is a cold. But, culturally, it also isn't. Allow me to explain. For years, I thought that I never got sick. I never went to the doctor, because every time I felt unwell I just wrote it off as masuk angin. No need for a doctor, because you can fix it with some kerokan or Tolak Angin.

The illness is something of a catchall. How does it feel? It sometimes feels like a cold, or the start of the flu. But other times it's just a general unwell feeling combined with gastric distress—nausea, diarrhea, cramps—and headaches. 

It's basically everything terrible, but only slightly so, and it's all the wind's fault. Or is it? 

Whenever I brought up masuk angin around foreigners they would laugh. How does one explain the concept of bad winds? So I called a doctor to figure out what, medically, is going on when we feel the effects of masuk angin. 

"The definition of masuk angin is varied," said Andi Khomeini Takdir Haruni, of the Indonesian Doctors Association. "Indonesians tend to identify unwell feelings ranging from feeling queasy, fevers, and joint pain as masuk angin. But what they actually feel is a combination of one of those symptoms."

OK, so, medically, masuk angin is a combination of symptoms described as a single illness. But then why don't other countries have their own version of masuk angin? Does it have something to do with our tropical climate? The weather here is always the same: hot, humid, with a chance of rain. That's got to have something to do with why Indonesians are so prone to feeling unwell, right? 

Well, it turns out masuk angin does have something to do with the climate. But not in the way I expected. The illness is present across Southeast Asia, under a variety of names, explained Melani Budianta, a cultural studies professor at Universitas Indonesia.  

Melani, quoting the work of a U.S. psychologist she once saw speak in Yogyakarta, explained that it's common for Southeast Asians to describe things in terms related to the wind. 

"I think culturally it's local knowledge that bursts into cultural spectrum, which is the knowledge of wind," Melani told me. "Wind is important in Southeast Asia, that's why people use 'wind' as a metaphor."

But why? It's all about connections and balance, Melani explained. 

"Masuk angin is philosophically described as having a connection to and a establishing balance with nature," she said. "Wind shows how certain areas and climates are linked, something that is so close to how nature works."

The word "angin," reappears in angin duduk ("sitting wind")—which in Indonesia is said to cause sudden death. I always thought the two were connected, that somehow my masuk angin could lead to angin duduk and then the coffin. But if masuk angin isn't a medical disease, then what the hell is angin duduk?

Turns out it's "sudden cardiac arrest"—basically it's a quick and deadly heart attack. 

"So it's also a symptom, where people actually describe the feeling as 'angin duduk,'" Andi explained. "But it's not a sickness itself—it's the symptoms of a heart attack. Again, this isn't a medical term. It's just how people describe the feeling."

So, again, it's all about feelings. This, I learned, is the easiest way to describe it. In the West, when people feel unwell, they describe the cause. They have hay fever, or food poisoning. But here in Indonesia (and apparently the rest of Southeast Asia) we describe the feeling. So what does a cold feel like in the tropics? It feels like a bad wind. 

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