Sunday, July 20, 2008

Chinese Medicine Neophyte

Western medicine and Chinese medicine appear to co-exist in modern Chinese culture. Dalian is fortunate to have one of the most contemporary Western medical hospitals in China. It has all of the normal machines you would expect to see, a pharmacy that deals out pills and injections, plus a ward just for traditional Chinese medicine. Yet, there are also hospitals solely for the practice of traditional Chinese medicine.

These were, as far as I could tell, just as popular. I accompanied one of my Chinese friends there for a check-up on her asthma treatment. The moment we stepped out of the bus I could the smell distinct odor of boiling herbs. Once inside, I sat and waited with my friend in the small office of her doctor while other patients received treatment and consultation a mere five feet away. This was slightly uncomfortable for me, the American who is used to a clear cut beginning and end to a private doctor’s appointment. Instead, as my friend was being seen other patients lingered in the room and continued to ask questions as they thought of them.
The doctor took my friend’s pulse on both wrists and thoroughly inspected her tongue. He listened to her symptoms and complaints and began writing a prescription. She took the slip of paper to the herb center where they keep thousands of varieties of herbs, fungi, and dried animal parts. She had the option of taking her prescription home in a bag of dried mixed herbs to boil herself, or she could wait a few days and they could boil the concoction for her. Having no kitchen in her apartment, she chose the latter. Later she showed me her set of smart sealed glass pipettes filled with a thick black bitter liquid that she drank three times a day. When I asked why she didn’t go to the Western medicine hospital, she answered rather frankly, “Because those medicines can hurt you.” I couldn’t really disagree.

My only other experience with traditional Chinese medical thought was in a combination beauty/health clinic, which are as common as noodle shops around the city. This was a small operation run by one Beijing native middle-aged woman named Ms. Liu and two apprentices. I began going there about once a week for facials (don’t judge me, they were cheap). But, I really went to practice my Chinese with these terribly patient women who doted over and pampered me. Often these visits would last hours while these matronly women sat holding my hand, serving me tea and fruit, giving me life advice, and reacting with great enthusiasm to even the simplest of jokes I managed to crack in Chinese. I could always count on them to bluntly tell me if I had gained or lost weight too! It helped that they were never particularly busy!

During one of these routine visits Mrs. Liu set up a large monitor on the wall and asked me to wash my hands. Never sure what is coming next in China, I did so willingly. She showed me a pen with a lit microscope lens at the end that when rolled along the skin could project the image on the screen. She grabbed my left hand and rolled the pen along the surface of my palm and began narrating. She gestured to the chart on the wall that illustrated the points on the human hands that coordinated to various internal organs (thank goodness I had learned the names before in my first hospital experience). As she rolled over my thumb she commented that I was extremely bright because of something about the quality of lines on my thumb. She moved the magic pen to the pad of my middle finger and commented that my “small brain” was also clever. Continuing to the base of my middle finger, she exclaimed that my lungs were exceptionally healthy! But as she moved closer to the middle of my palm, she saw red spots. She grumbled that my stomach was not healthy and warned me against eating or drinking cold substances.

On this particular visit I had brought my friend along to share in the experience. He was also instructed to wash his hands to be checked out. Mrs. Liu took his right hand (being male) and repeated the process as a mirror image of my hand. All checked out as healthy until she reached the outer edge of his palm. When she saw red spots she sucked her teeth with disapproval. She warned him that his liver was in poor condition and that he should drink less alcohol. My friend protested, blaming the red spots on a scar from a recent motorbike accident. Mrs Liu was having none of it.

I dodged the bullet when they asked me if I believed in Chinese Medicine saying, “I’m not very clear on it.” I was dying to ask if the magic pen worked reciprocally. That is, could you look at my organs to assess the condition of my hands? I bit my tongue fearing the sarcasm might not traverse the cultural gap before us.

I have a rough understanding of a few other medical beliefs that both baffle and fascinate me. Many of them center on wind and cold. For instance, for fear of catching a cold, my Chinese roommates refused to sleep with a running fan. Additionally, despite the stifling heat they always slept with a blanket covering their stomachs and balked when I did not. Later another Chinese friend confirmed that it is commonly believed that cold or exposed stomach will result in internal discomfort in the morning.

There is definitely a love hate relationship with air-conditioners here. There was a mother-daughter couple that attended my weekly Tai Chi class. One day, only the mother came to class. When I inquired to the whereabouts of the daughter, the mother answered, “She has diarrhea.” “Oh,” I said awkwardly, “she must have eating something spoiled.” “No,” she corrected, “she slept with the air-conditioner on.”

I fail to see the causal relationship between cold air and unhealthy bowels. Yet, I am sure that each culture has its share of wildly accepted yet loosely proven health beliefs. For instance, is there any scientific evidence to justify the belief that swimming just after eating will actually result in cramps? Not sure, but without fail someone brings it up while snacking next to the pool or on the beach. Or, how about the magic sponge and water in Europe? When I played on a soccer team in France, a girl was injured and everyone started screaming “de l’eau, de l’eau!” A teammate ran over and dumped water on her hurt leg. If anyone can think of others, please let me know.

Other rules that I heard (but don’t fully understand) throughout my time in China are: Don’t drink water before bed or your eyes will be puffy, staying up late is bad for specifically WOMEN’S health, you should not expose your lower back to cold air as the cold temperatures can cause kidney problems, don’t walk while you are eating or you will get wind in your stomach, and eating cold things in general will give you indigestion.

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