While my sister and I were staying in Beijing with our parents last summer, we were introduced to the weirdness that is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). So yeah. Here’s that story.
Our mom booked us appointments at the local hospital, wanting to see how our health stacked up against non-Western medicine. We followed along, like the dutiful daughters we are (but with a healthy amount of skepticism).
Now, just to paint the picture here, this was the nicest, cleanest, most modern hospital we’d ever seen. It caters mostly to expats with international health plans, so to be honest, the minute you stepped in there, it felt like you weren’t even in China anymore.
But that’s where the similarities ended on that particular visit. We were going to see Dr. Shao, a doctor trained in TCM. We got to her office located within the hospital, and the experience began.
How does your average doctor’s visit go? You get in there, sit on the examining table…maybe they check out your eyes, your ears, your blood pressure, weight, heart rate, etc. They ask you about whether you get enough sleep or if you’re eating enough calcium-rich foods. Blah blah blah.
Well that’s not how Dr. Shao rolls.
She starts by asking you to stick out your tongue. You do so, slightly weirded out by the request. She looks at your tongue. Then she takes a quick, almost imperceptible glance at your face.
“Hmm…” she says, muttering to herself.
Then Dr. Shao pulls out this little purple velvet pillow–we kid you not–and tells you to place your wrist on it. She puts two fingers on your pulse and waits for a few seconds.
So, to recap, she has taken a look at your face, your tongue, and felt your pulse, old-school-style…………on a velvet pillow.
She then proceeds to explain that you haven’t been getting enough sleep, that you probably have lower back pain, right? And that you’re eating too much pork and should probably stay away from any and all shellfish as well. But all in all, on a scale of one to ten, she would place your health at an eight.
What!? A rating system? How did she know I’ve been feeling like maybe I sort of have chronic lower back pain? What was with the tongue thing?
After this whole interlude, she asks if we would like to have medicine prescribed for each of our respective minor ailments. She explains that she’d cured one patient completely of his chronic backaches, helped a gaggle of women lose twenty pounds, and increased circulation, energy levels, and overall health in many others.
So…with odds like that, we figure we’ll try it out.
She pulls out a prescription slip, and rather than ibuprofen for backpain or Ambien for sleep, she starts writing down all these plants, herbs, tree barks, seeds, and whatever other questionable ingredients will go into our medicinal stew. She explained that they were all plant-based, natural ingredients, which didn’t sound too bad. I’m pretty sure her exact words were:
“Very nature…very plant…”
So yeah, her English wasn’t so great. But we got the gist.
When we get to the pharmacy window at the hospital, they explain that the ingredients have to be mixed, stewed, and bagged, and that they will be delivered to us by a hospital courier. Pretty decent service, I have to say.
The next day, my sister and I received 28 packets of liquid each (enough for two weeks, while taking it twice per day). They were both different colors. Clearly we had slightly different brews. My sister’s was a light amber color, while mine was a more sinister-looking deep brown. We were to warm it up and drink it every morning and evening. Here is what my sister’s concoction looked like:
You can’t see it too well from the image, but the liquid had this cloudy consistency, like the medicine hadn’t been strained quite enough. The particles would settle to the bottom of the glass, so the last few gulps were excruciatingly…sandy.
You don’t even want to know what this stuff tasted like. Incredibly bitter, with an extremely off taste that resembled something like rancid chestnuts, it was easily the most disgusting thing I’d ever tasted. My throat would close up, like my brain was saying: Clearly, something that tastes this horrible must be POISON.
It would take me nearly ten minutes to choke down one dose. My sister could do it a lot faster, but her yellow sissy juice was nothing to the deep, thick brown slop that I was dealing with.
We were also able to see a packet of the ingredients that went into each batch of medicine. It looked like something out of Severus Snape’s potions cabinet. Dried, crushed leaves, pebbles, tree bark, flower petals, and some powdery stuff that looked suspiciously like dirt.
Our mom’s looked even worse.
I mean, come on. There are actual TWIGS in there.
So you must be wondering at this point whether or not the medicine worked.
Well, according to Dr. Shao, it was working. She commented on our next visit that our skin looked brighter, and asked us whether or not our ailments were cured.
Sure, I guess I don’t have lower back pain anymore (but did I really have lower back pain to begin with?)
Okay, maybe my skin looked brighter (I’m pretty sure that’s just because I’ve been drinking a LOT more water to chase down your medicine, Dr. Shao).
And um, I guess I’ve been sleeping as well as ever?
So our verdict isn’t really final on Chinese medicine. It could be that we’re just healthy, and don’t really have many ailments to cure.
But suffice it to say, my sister and I probably won’t be trying it again any time soon.