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Adventures in Chinese Medicine

I've never really thought about Chinese medicine, other than to be quietly skeptical when other people talked to me about their experiences the way I used to be when other people touted the virtues of their chiropractors and acupuncturists. Okay, sometimes I wasn't that quiet. Sometimes I actually made quacking noises.

When you go to a Western doctor, you must first tell them (sometimes weeks in advance) that you're coming. Once you get there, they poke and prod and perform all manner of indignities upon you before you even see the doctor. Then you're made to wait in a tiny room with uncomfortable, paper-covered furniture and lots of equipment you're not supposed to touch. After a very long time the doctor comes in. This doctor may or may not speak to you. S/he has looked at the scribbles of the assistant who was the one to whom you told all your symptoms and who did all the actual diagnostic stuff (taking your temperature, etc.). The doctor will tell you that indeed, you do have the thing you said you have, and here are your options. The doctor will make you choose which of the options you think your insurance might pay for and will be very vague about side effects, overall efficacy or what they would do in the same situation. I have a very deep and abiding hatred of doctors for this reason. Eight years of schooling and you'd think they'd be able to just give an order. "Take this pill." "Don't eat pine cones." "Stop doing that."

The Chinese doctor is entirely different in ways I find inexplicable and fascinating. Firstly, I cannot talk to him. I don't think he understands any English, and I certainly don't understand any Chinese. Luckily, I have my friend Chia with me to translate. We go to the back of one of those Chinese stores that have a wall of tiny little drawers filled with things like dried seahorses and rabbit penises and horse tonsils and smelly roots and fungi and twigs. At the back of the store is a dingy-looking little man with a bad haircut and an ill-fitting ancient houndstooth jacket. Both Chia and the little man motion to me to sit in front of the desk.

I am thinking that I will then be asked about my medical history, my symptoms and what it is I want to accomplish, but Chinese medicine is not so emotionally coddling as that. Instead, the man motions for me to put first my left arm then my right arm on pads on the desk and he takes my pulse while staring intently down. I want to see what he's looking at, but I'm momentarily blinded by a watch that looks like something he mugged P.Diddy to get. He takes my pulse for much longer than it would take merely to gauge the number of beats per minute, all the while staring at the surface of the desk. He looks at my face long enough to put his tongue out at me and nod. This means that I'm to put my tongue out at him, and I do.

The doctor turned to my friend and began firing words at her, which she deflected to me.

"He's going to help you lose weight. Your arteries are too small and your heart isn't getting enough blood, so you're not sleeping well. Your yang energy is out of balance, so you need your hormones adjusted."

While he was talking, he was writing two columns of words on an 8 1/2 x 11 inch sheet of paper which he then hands to me while speaking to and looking at Chia. "This is your prescription," she says. I'm supposed to take it to the front of the shop where they will make it up.

We stand there for a while, looking at what constitutes over the counter medicine in a Chinese medical establishment. I pick up what would in an American store be potpourri. In this store it's soup. Chia picks up another bag of a similar blend and points to some of its constituents. They are, very plainly, bugs. I start looking anxiously at the men who are busy putting things onto large pieces of paper, making sure that none of those things are bugs.

What I got, in fact, was six gallon-sized bags of something my younger daughter refers to as "tree soup." There are slices of tree branch, bits of stick, lots of bark, tiny twigs, sliced-up leaves, and a huge amount of stuff that looks like birdseed - millet, things that look like sesame seeds only round, other little black seeds. Every day, I'm to put one of these bags of stuff into a large metal pot with seven cups of water and boil it down to one cup of liquid, which I am to drink. Chia has recommended that I feed the solid stuff to the chickens. I am doing that, although I have no idea whether their yang energy is out of balance, and I certainly don't want them to lose weight. The stuff smells a little weird, although I have been in the homes of other Chinese friends while they're brewing medicine and I know that I am getting off easy. I've smelled some stuff that made me consider whether the cure might not be worse than the ailment. This stuff, when I drink it, has the aftertaste of barbecue sauce. Not really yummy, delicious barbecue sauce. Industrial, bland, chemically-tasting barbecue sauce.

It's day 5, and I don't feel markedly different. My mother has asked some of her friends about it, and the universal consensus seems to be that I am lucky indeed to have the privilege of receiving Chinese medicine. I don't dispute this for an instant. I am even luckier to have a dear friend who is not just willing, but eager to translate for me. Secondly, they all seem to think that he's taking it easy on me and not giving me anything too strong. All the Chinese folks we know who normally patronize such establishments say that it's not unusual to have a brew so strong that it's impossible to drink without a respirator, and so potent that they must lie down for a while after drinking it. I have had neither effect. Then again, I'm Scottish on my mother's side and Mexican on my father's side - two people well known for their reticence to fall down.

Only one thing has been true - according to the Pirate, I'm not snoring anymore and according to me, I'm sleeping wonderfully. I'm feeling utterly tired by about 9 (unheard of for me) and don't have any trouble waking up on time.

Time will tell about everything else.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 17th, 2008 09:59 pm (UTC)
Don't eat pine cones? Who knew I shouldn't be eating those?? My doctors don't tell me nuffin'.
Jan. 18th, 2008 02:14 am (UTC)
Interesting! I'll be looking forward to a further report down the line...
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )