My Brief Foray into Traditional Chinese Medicine
Living in China, as woman, you’ll hear a few phrases over and over. Anytime you go out with a group of women, they will inevitably tell you that something that’s offered on the dinner table is good for your reproductive system. Some will say it directly. Other will put it more gently, like, “Women should eat this every day. It’s good for our health.”
After a few dozen of these tidbits I stopped keeping track of what was going to revive my dying eggs and decided to just nod politely every time I heard another auntie tell me to eat more of some ingredient.
If you make the mistake of walking out of the home with wet hair, possibly because it’s the middle of an oppressive summer heat wave and your cool, damp hair is the only thing keeping you comfortable enough to walk down the street, you’ll inevitably hear those same aunties clucking their tongues and telling you that you’ll catch a cold. Or get a headache. Either way, it’s possible that you’ll die.
I must have had wet hair often during my first summer in Chengdu because I caught a nasty cold. During this time, I was living with a host family and it was interesting to see their reaction to my cold.
At mealtime, we all ate from communal dishes, using our personal chopsticks to take food from the plates and put it either directly into our mouths or into our small, individual bowls. Not knowing the proper etiquette of being sick and eating communally, I asked my host mother what I should do. She just shrugged her shoulders didn’t seem to care.
I got this response from every Chinese person I asked. While not dipping your chopsticks into the shared dishes is “officially” the polite thing to do when sick, in reality, no one stops doing it and no one else really cares. Well,I figured, if they don’t care, I shouldn’t either.
Of course, this was a doosey of a cold and it made living in a smog- covered city quite miserable. I already had a hard time breathing when I was working out and the cold wasn’t helping. I also couldn’t tell whether my stinging eyes were again the pollution at its worst or my cold. So, my host mother suggested that she take me to the hospital. It was the first time in my life anyone ever suggested that I go to the hospital to deal with a common cold, but it wasn’t the last. This also ended up being a very common phrase in China. Do you have a headache? You should go to the hospital. Do you have diarrhea? You should go to the hospital.
I had heard stories about overcrowding and horrible conditions at the hospitals. One Peace Corps volunteer was having pains in her lower abdominal area and the doctor gave her a pelvic exam- in a room full of waiting patients. This wasn’t just an urban legend; our Peace Corps doctor confirmed it. I made a promise to myself to never go to a hospital unless I was too sick to stop them from taking me.
Traditional Chinese Medicine-Round 1
So what did my host mother suggest as an alternative to a hospital visit? She made me a tea concoction that was prescribed to her by a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) doctor. She and my host father went to the TCM hospital one weekend a month and waited for hours to see the doctor. While TCM prescriptions are personalized and, just like Western medicine, shouldn’t be shared by patients, she assured me that this was a very common mixture made from tree leaves and was safe. She had even given the tea to her 3 year old daughter when she too had a cough.
I was excited drinking my first TCM tea. She brewed the leaves in a special tea pot with a horizontal handle sticking out the side that was used only for medicinal purposes. We waited until the color was a dark brown, similar to that of a strong cup of black tea. I was instructed to let it cool a bit before drinking. Luckily, during the time it was cooling she left the room and didn’t see me when I gagged taking my first sip. It was the most horrible earthy flavor I could imagine and tasted somewhat like drinking mud must taste. I expected it to be pungent, but this was repulsive.
After a few minutes of honestly trying to drink the tea but failing, I finally took the cup to my room and waited until the family was in bed to pour it in the sink. I couldn’t drink something that disgusting. I went to bed relieved that no one saw me cheating at my first TCM experience and woke up the next morning sicker than ever.
Traditional Chinese Medicine- Round 2
The next day I had to sit through 6 hours of lecture and Chinese class. During our vocabulary review my head was throbbing, my throat was scratchy and I couldn’t stop coughing. When my teacher asked me to give her an example sentence I broke into tears. I was too sick to concentrate and certainly too sick to speak Chinese.
I’m certain that my host mother was called while I was in school and told that her 30 year old host daughter had a childlike outbreak in class, because when I got home, she suggested that we try another remedy for my cold: massage. Unlike a typical massage, this one involved a metal tool that look similar to a curling iron, but the circumference was larger and rod was shorter. Instead of being plugged in, it was heated by inserting lit incense into the rod. The rod was porous metal, like a screen, allowing it to heat up while also releasing the fumes from the incense.
While I was seated in a chair in the family room, she started to gently roll the tool up my back and over my shoulders. The heat from the inside chamber was warm and comfortable. The smell was pleasant, but when it burned the ashes fell onto my body and I was soon covered in a fine layer. I didn’t mind, since the massage was so relaxing I was able to ignore it.
For a few minutes, the massage felt so nice I was able to forget that it was host mother who was on the giving end (kind of awkward) and I melted away. When she stopped, I thanked her and let her know that I was going to take a shower. (I need to clarify a bit here because for some reason I could never remember the word for ‘shower’ in Chinese. Instead I would always say, “I’m going to go…” and would mime holding a showerhead over me and scrubbing my body. It took me months to finally remember the word and at that point I no longer lived with my host family.)
Unfortunately, she told me no.
As part of the procedure, I had to let the ashes sit on my back and shoulders for 24 hours. At the very least I would have to let them work their magic overnight and I could maybe wash them off in the morning. It was a long night lying in bed sick, dirty, and desperately hoping not to ruin the family’s sheets.
Traditional Chinese Medicine- Round 3
I managed to make it through the next day with a cold that was still a problem, though slightly less so. I was looking forward to the following day, Sunday, our one day off from training each week. I needed some rest to finally feel better.
Sunday morning rolled around and my host mother announced at breakfast that we were going to a spa. She was certain that this would be the best way to cure my cold. I didn’t see any connection between a spa and my cold, but I love a good spa trip and was game to go.
Let me first say that a Chinese spa is nothing like I have ever experienced. The building was lovely- modern and very fancy with the typical over-done decorations that are so popular. Inside the spa there were a few features that seemed out of place. For example, there was a giant room filled with what appeared to be Lazy Boy recliners with mostly men in white robes smoking. Yes, they were smoking indoors, in a spa. The recliners were also lined up around the buffet, which features an all-you-can-eat selection of noodles, fried food and ice cream. Not your typical spa fare.
In the spa I followed my host family through a variety of different forms of entertainment. First up, was a getting completely naked and walking across the locker room into a large wooden tub that looked like an old fashion bucket. We then soaked for 20 minutes in bubbles. I suppose, since houses don’t have bathtubs, they go to the spa to soak.
After that, I was subjected to more naked time, this time with my 12 year old host sister, in the sauna. I was pretty sure outside was hot and humid enough for my needs, but they really wanted to make sure I had sweat out everything in me.
Last, I was told I was going to experience guā shā 刮痧. Not being familiar with that word they explained it as a type of massage that would remove the bad qì from my system. The bad qì, which they also referred to as excess water, was the reason for my cold. This qì, was stuck in my lung area which resulted in my bad cough that wouldn’t relent. The guā shā was supposed to be a type of massage with tools (but not the same tool as my host mother used before) to remove the qì from my lungs.
I was taken to a private room where a nervous attendant (she had never worked on a foreigner before) kept complimenting my pale skin and blond hair. I was told to lie down, face-down, on the table. What occurred next can only be described as a pleasant, gentle scraping sensation mixed with a comfortable (firm, but not too firm) massage. It started with the massage, and I’m not quite sure when it switched to the scraping. At times, I couldn’t even tell if the woman was massaging me with her hands or the tool, which was a curved piece of jade. Either way, the experience was not at all painful and I felt very relaxed afterwards.
It wasn’t until I was getting dressed that I saw the damage. Looking in a mirror I saw that the tool had left bruises all over my back, along my spine, ribs and muscles, much like a charcoal pencil will do when rubbed over paper on an uneven surface. My bruises almost looked like a skeleton. Apparently, the more bad qì that’s in your system, the harder they have to scrape to remove it resulting in more bruises. They assured me that if I came more regularly, my skin would get tougher and each time I would have less marks.
I tried my best to hide my bruises the next day in class, but they peaked out over the top of my shirt at the nape of my neck. I didn’t mind though- my cold was finally gone.