Moving to a new country is hard on almost anyone. Our family moved from sunny Singapore to China seven years ago, and I can still remember the stress of getting rid of things, organizing movers, and sorting personal items amidst goodbyes.
What I forgot at that time was that I was not just moving the family; I was transplanting my own internal ecosystem along with me. Coiled up inside each of us is seven to ten meters of digestive tubing. It provides a home for about 500 species of bacteria and yeast that make up your digestive flora. This microbial colony came along for the move without knowing that it was about to be exposed to new foods, new challenges, and, thanks to China’s unique cuisine, a good dousing of oil and hot peppers.
Here are a few survival lessons learned, in some cases painfully, from our own move:
Lesson One: Exercise caution your first year. Avoid street foods for the first few months until your gut has acclimatized and you are past culture shock and the initial stress of moving. When casing the local restaurants, remember that bathrooms can be a convenient (though not completely accurate) indicator of kitchen cleanliness. Opt for food that that been flash cooked in high heat, roasted or stir-fried rather than boiled or steamed for an unspecified time. Be wary of foods that have minced ingredients and require a lot of handling, like pork dumplings. Skip the fried rice and creamy dishes. Look for places that have a high food turnover; even hotel buffets can be a source of trouble.
Lesson Two: Along with the usual medicines, stock up on probiotics. Ultimately, no matter what, new arrivals come in contact with new bacteria and risk some tummy trouble. In western medicine, the imbalances of intestinal bacteria are treated with antibiotics. This can help temporarily, but for a sound recovery, it is essential to restore normal intestinal flora with probiotics.
Yogurt is a fine source of probiotics, but in times of trouble, more may be needed. For long-term health, good flora need the support that comes from a sensible, healthy diet. That means it pays to eat your broccoli and lean meats.
Lesson Three: Feed it right. It is worth avoiding fried youtiao (fried dough sticks), juices and other sugary beverages. Keep your tummy in good shape with foods that are high in fiber, because they contain healthy fats and are low in sugar. Foods that contain lots of simple sugars, saturated and trans fats but little fiber, encourage the growth of bad flora.
Hold on to these tips, as they are good not just for living in China, but for all the years and journeys to come.
Got a question?
Olivia Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org) has an MSc in nutrition and provides nutrition counseling.