Monday, January 5, 2009

"The Water and the Soil Don't Suit Me"

Two More of My Students: I was teaching them that night because they had huge English tests the next day. I had bronchitis and a fever (notice my very white face and sick expression). Their mother thought I was so beautiful with my pasty white complexion that she interrupted our lesson for a 30 to 45 minute photo shoot. I have the book open on my lap, and every time the mother started changing lenses and fussing with her flashes, I would help my students with another point of English grammar. I think that even today that evening rates as one of the most bizarre English classes I have ever taught.

As summer turned to fall and fall turned to winter, the weather in Taiwan got very damp and cold. We had not expected to be living in concrete and steel buildings without carpeting or heat. The board beds that had been so cool in the summer were freezing in the winter. It was extremely hard to get warm. We dressed in layers and layers of clothing, and still we were cold. Most of our roommates put on an extra five pounds in the winter that they then lost when the weather got hot in the summer.

It was not so bad when we were outside walking, but when we were inside writing our characters, our fingers would get numb. Finally, we bought the fingerless palm mitts that all our roommates wore. They were gloves without fingertips. That one article of clothing made a big difference in keeping warm. We exchanged our light towel covers for flannel pads on the bottom and heavy cotton quilts on top. We were quite glad to drink hot water from the thermos in our room, and we felt it wasn’t really hot enough.

Then the rains came. It rained for months on end with almost no break. We were always slightly damp. Our jeans never really got dry. We were so cold that we were always tired. Our housemates would take advantage of every bit of sun to air their quilts, padded jackets, and bedding. We were too tired to even think of doing such a thing. The sun never stayed out for more than a few hours anyway. We thought they were silly for being so meticulous about airing bedding until one day we discovered that our mattress pads had mildewed. The one on Lynne’s bed had to be thrown away. After that, we too made the trek downstairs with our heavy quilts and mattress pads to spread them on top of parked bikes and motorcycles whenever there was sun.

Eventually, we got sick. Our friends took us to a clinic where the doctor prescribed a pharmacopeia of pills. I told him very clearly that I was violently allergic to penicillin and all its derivatives, but he didn’t believe me. Fortunately, he left the antibiotic in its original labeled packaging (unlike the decongestants and stomach medicine), and I was able to avoid taking it. After being given penicillin on three separate occasions by three different doctors, I decided to try Chinese medicine because I had contracted bronchitis, and I could not get over it without some kind of medicine.

We had to go to school every day because if we missed too many days of classes, we would lose our visas. I also had to teach my students because I needed the money to live on. My roommates eased me into Chinese medicine by first giving me home remedies like dried tangerine peels, steamed pears with rock candy, and fritilleria syrup for my cough. The remedies helped the symptoms, but they didn’t really cure my illness.

Finally, one of the old ladies from church recommended a Chinese medicine doctor who used herbs and acupuncture. We went to his clinic, and because he spoke no English, he gave the case to his daughter, who was learning the family trade and had taken a few years of English in school. She looked at my throat, listened to my cough, and had me lay my arm on a pulse pillow on her desk while she felt my wrist pulse using three of her fingers. She took my pulse for a long time on each side, and then called her father to feel it, too. They discussed my case for at least fifteen minutes, while my roommates and I sat there looking at the surroundings. We were in a small room with a high, narrow bed. There were glass jars of herbs and a chest of wooden drawers filled with more herbs. The entire shop smelled of herbs, especially cinnamon. There were also deer’s antlers and beetles and other animal products in some of the glass cases. There was a large, gold statue of a naked man with holes in straight lines running up and down his torso, arms, and legs. My friends told me the holes were points for needles. I didn’t really understand what they meant by that, at least not until after the two doctors had figured out their plan of treatment. The daughter told me they were going to try acupuncture on me. I remained fully clothed and seated in the chair by her desk. She put some needles in my face near my sinuses, a couple in my toes, and finally she stuck one in the flesh between my thumb and the rest of my hand. I felt a jolt of energy like electricity racing up to my head, and I blacked out. I came to a minute or two later as she was pinching the middle of my upper lip. She left the needles in my face and feet for about 15 minutes, and then because I was still feeling dizzy, she removed the needles and gave me packets of powdered herbs to take after meals and before bed time. I just had to throw the powders into the back of my mouth and wash them down with water. The acupuncture had cleared up my sinuses in the ten minutes or so that I had been stuck with the needles. The doctor showed me how to pinch that point between my thumb and hand to stop coughing spells. It worked, too. Pinching my ear lobes stopped nausea. The herbs helped me feel a lot better.

When I ran out of herbs, I was not completely over the bronchitis, so we went back for another treatment. I passed out again with the acupuncture. The second time, I did okay with the needle in my hand, but she added one at my temples because I had a headache, and that needle triggered a fainting spell. Again, I was sitting in the chair by her desk, so I didn’t fall far, but the father had my friends and his daughter warn me that my physical constitution was not suited to acupuncture. He recommended that I take herbs for the long-term because he said, “The water and the soil in Taipei do not suit you.” That is a Chinese idiom to describe illnesses that come from not acclimating well to new surroundings. I told him I would consider it, but after a third set of powder packets, I was over my bronchitis and having too much fun to waste time going to the doctor every five days. So whenever the seasons changed from hot to cold to hot again, I would get very, very sick, until the middle of the second year when I really did go to a Chinese doctor to “adjust my physical constitution” to suit Taiwan. That time I wound up having to take herbs and powders for more than six months, but it worked, and I was really healthy for many years afterwards.


Barbara Martin said...

Chinese medicine and herbs can work wonders on all types of ailments. Although I see a regular general practitioner, I take ginger and lemon whenever I feel flu or cold bug symptoms. Cinnamon is good for your heart and over all health.

Teresa said...

Hi Barbara,

I agree with you about the effectiveness of herbs. My allergies to synthetic chemicals have gotten worse with age, and I use herbs for almost everything now. Ginger, lemon, garlic, cinnamon, and of course, ginseng are all really good for the health.