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…