Sunday, June 23, 2013

Chinese Medicine in Lieu of Good Insurance

If you remember, when I gave birth to my youngest child, Peace, something went wrong during the surgery. In 1994, after all the stress of Eldest Sister’s hospitalization and caring for three children in Seattle while Yuni worked most of the year in California, the problems from that surgery began acting up. I went to an urgent care facility because we no longer had comprehensive insurance after Yuni began his own contracting business. The doctors were nice, but they could not figure out what was wrong with me, and I could not afford more extensive testing. In the end, I called a Chinese friend from church who had studied Chinese medicine. He came to my home and took my pulses. Then he wrote me up a prescription. The girls and I took the bus to the International District in Seattle and got bags of herbs that we boiled to make decoctions for me to take several times a day. Our whole house smelled of the medicine. This particular friend was quite skilled; his prescriptions worked well. I took the herbs for several weeks and felt fine.

My experience helped one of our American friends, who is a recovering heroin addict. He had slipped on some ice, shattering his elbows, and needed non-opiate pain medication. Since I knew a good Chinese doctor, I was able to introduce my American friend to Chinese medicine. This time, my American friend’s wife drove us to the International District, and we got the bags of herbs. His prescription included a whole beetle in each bag. I taught my friends how to boil the herbs to make the bitter brown liquid that would help with the pain. It worked quite well, although my friend’s wife crushed the beetles inside the bags before she put the herbs into the pot because she was afraid her husband would not take the medicine, if he knew what was in it.

Later, we moved to California, and I was not so lucky with my next flare up of the side effects of surgery. I got a referral from Chinese friends to a Chinese medicine doctor near our southern California home, and her medicine made me worse than when I started. This can be a real problem with Chinese medicine, especially with practitioners outside of licensed Traditional Chinese Medicine or Classical Chinese Medicine schools. In the mid-1990s, when these problems occurred, Chinese medicine was not so popular outside the Chinese-American immigrant community, and there were no state licensing requirements. It was really a hit or miss kind of process. People would get referrals from friends and try the medicine. If they felt better, they would go back. If they didn’t, they would try another doctor. Some doctors were well-trained; others had a little knowledge and just passed themselves off as Chinese doctors because they could not get better work in America. Such "Mongolian doctors" still exist in the Chinese immigrant community, but they usually work from the back room of a shop that sells herbs and other Chinese knick-knacks. They are less apt now to put themselves forward as Chinese doctors. They frequently claim to have a special family recipe for a great herbal remedy. 

Now there are many schools of Chinese medicine in California, and the state of California has licensing exams for acupuncturists and TCM practitioners. TCM or Traditional Chinese Medicine is the form of Chinese medicine practiced in mainland China. It has been updated and made more scientific, but it is still based on the traditional Chinese methods of diagnosis and treatment. Part of the process of making TCM more scientific included the removal of Taoist practices, the I-Ching, and astrology from TCM theory and practice. Classical Chinese medicine is the line of Chinese medicine that retains those parts of the tradition that were excised from TCM as being too “superstitious.” I have seen excellent Chinese doctors in both the TCM line and the Classical Chinese medicine line here in California. I think the best thing to do is to shop around, ask for referrals from friends, and to be sure that the practitioner, at the minimum, has a state license. There is now a Oriental Medicine Doctoral degree (OMD) that further certifies a Chinese doctor’s level of training.

What does astrology have to do with medicine? Why would it be a part of Classical Chinese Medicine? I am not sure, but I did go to a Chinese doctor in Taipei, who cast my bazi (八字,eight character) horoscope as part of my medical history at the first appointment. I got a lot of help from that doctor, and he was considered to be one of the best Chinese doctors in all of Taiwan in the early 1980s. None of the Chinese medicine doctors that I have gone to in America have used astrology in treating me.

All Chinese doctors that I have gone to seem to rely mostly on taking my pulses, asking my symptoms, and looking at my face, eyes, and tongue. Occasionally, they will smell my breath to finalize a diagnosis. When taking the pulses, Chinese doctors use three fingers on each wrist to feel how my blood and qi are moving in each of the main channels. They are not just counting how many times the patient’s heart beats in a minute. They are feeling for the quality of the pulse under each finger. Then they prescribe herbs, which now come in capsules or powders instead of bags to be boiled. They also usually give suggestions as to what foods will contribute to their patients’ health. The food suggestions are tailored to each patient’s body type, and even act as catalysts for some of the herbal medicines. More on all this in upcoming posts… 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Dragon Boat Festival

Today is the 5th day of the 5th month of the lunar year; that means it is the day of the Dragon Boat Festival. In the Chinese lunar calendar, summer runs through the 4th, 5th, and 6th months, and 5/5 is a mid-summer festival. The official name is Duanwujie. Because it’s mid-summer, the poisonous snakes and insects are out (see my earliest posts about the airplane-sized mosquitoes in Taipei during the 1980s). One tradition is to wear colorful bags of silk that are filled with aromatic herbs to keep away poisonous beasties. These bags are called xiangbao. When I was first in Taiwan, I remember the street vendors selling them all over near my school. They were often animal-shaped; you could buy a tiger or a lion or a dragon. The silk bags were strung on a colored silk cord that you would hang around your neck. Other practices include hanging rushes and moxa plants over the doors to your home to keep out the noxious things. Some people drink Xiunghuang wine (rice wine with realgar) to keep summer illnesses and toxins from harming them.

The favorite food of the season is zongzi or sticky-rice tamales. The legend behind this food is that the poet Qu Yuan (343-290 BCE) of the kingdom of Chu got so depressed at the bad state of affairs in his country that he committed suicide by jumping into the river on Duanwujie. He hoped that his death would awaken the king and nobles to the fact that they were harming the country. The people who saw him jump raced out with boats to try to save him, but they were too late. They were unable to recover his body, so they dropped sticky-rice tamales into the river to keep the fish from eating the corpse and as a sacrificial offering to Qu Yuan’s spirit.

In the Liu family, Eldest Sister makes zongzi every year for friends and relatives. She makes a special kind of rice paste tamale with no added flavoring. Instead, you dip them in sugar or peanut powder or soy sauce, depending on your taste. Those kind can be eaten cold. In Taiwan, we also buy zongzi fresh at the market or from street vendors. They usually have sticky rice, a piece of pork, a piece of shitake mushroom, some other pickled vegetables, and a boiled egg yolk in them. They are wrapped in bamboo leaves, tied up with cotton string, and boiled until they’re cooked.

When Pa and Ma were living with us in the US about 10 years ago, we made our own zongzi. We got the bamboo leaves at the 99 Ranch Market. We half-cooked the sticky rice, par-boiled the pork, and soaked the shitake mushrooms. We also stir-fried the veggies to make them taste good. Then we folded the bamboo leaf into a triangle-shaped cone and put in a spoonful of the partially-cooked rice. We added our goodies and put another layer of rice on the top. Then we folded the rest of the bamboo leaf over to make a pyramid-shaped tamale and tied it all up with the cotton string. We tied the whole bunch together and boiled the tamales in the big wok. We stored them in the refrigerator and reheated them by steaming them or zapping them in the microwave for a minute or two. Definitely a delicious treat!

In southern China, where there are lots of streams and rivers, the people celebrate Duanwujie with dragon boat races; hence, the English name “Dragon Boat Festival.” The boat races commemorate the boats racing to save the poet Qu Yuan, and besides, water sports are great fun on a hot summer day. Dragon boat races are now popular outside of China, too. Here in Long Beach, we have our own dragon boat races in July or August ( They are not tied to the lunar calendar, and they do not occur on duanwujie, but they are a lot of fun.