June is pride month. It’s a month to not be afraid of being yourself. At least, that’s how I see it. Because we celebrate pride in June, I feel more comfortable with wearing LGBTQ+ accessories.

“All this candy will give you a cough” and Other Lies I Thought my Chinese Mum Told me.

Leveraging candy and sweets for good behaviour is a classic parenting technique used to condition children all around the world. But growing up in Hong Kong, arbitrary diet changes were very much the norm. My mum, like every Chinese aunty I knew, periodically took away my sugar privileges, drowned me in ginger tea or other concoctions as part of a seasonal illness prevention, and I accepted her remedies as doctor-approved facts. My sister and I rarely questioned any of it, and did not receive an apt explanation when we did. Growing up in London, I spent years challenging, rebelling and fact-debunking my mum’s recipes and beliefs to only find myself now wrapped up in what I thought were a bunch of old wives’ tales, hidden agendas and lies. 

Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM, has an entirely different belief system to Western Medicine. Rather than using evidence-based theories on chemistry and anatomy, TCM focuses on the human body as a connection of mind and body systems, and uses herbal products, acupuncture or physical remedies such as ta chi, to seek and facilitate harmony in the body. A body whose system is in harmony represents health and wellbeing, and therefore disharmony brings illness and disease. Through a set of theories, applications and herbal remedies practiced over 3000 years, TCM has formed a rich and sophisticated system with a huge diversity of medicines and applications, and the herbs and treatments today are widely used.

A treatment that seeks ‘harmony’ may seem like an outdated pseudoscience, but the sophistication and complexity of these theories shouldn’t be discredited just because of this. A system, according to TCM, is an invisible energy pathway connecting and responding to various ‘Meridian’ connections. There are 12 Meridian pathways, responding to an internal organ, such as the Liver Meridian, carrying energy, blood and information. The vital energy which flows through these pathways is called ‘Qi’ (pronounced “chee”.) The blockage or clogging of the Qi, therefore, affects the whole body-mind-spirit and ultimately disrupts the harmony of the body expounded in the offset of Yin and Yang.  

In short, there are six external factors which disrupt the free-flowing ‘Qi’. First is “Wind”, characterised by sneezing, headaches or chills. Then, ‘Cold’, which in excess can damage pathways causing the stagnation ‘‘qi’ and blood flow. The third is ‘Heat’ which damages your ‘Yin’ and is characterised by thirst or fever. The final three, ‘Dryness’, ‘Dampness’ and ‘Summer heat’ are less common. More localised popular remedies have grounded theories in these six ‘evils’. The cures are usually always a unique mix of a great grandmother’s recipe and a loosely passed-down anecdote from the auntie’s Wechat group chat. 

Once I understood these theories, popular sayings such as ‘candy will give you a cough’ started to make sense. Candy and sweets are a ‘heaty’ food, damaging the Yin, yin deficiency therefore leads to inflammation of the lungs due to the blocked pathways in the Lung Meridian, the inflammation then leads to a cough. During the colder months, ginger is taken to heat up the ‘Cold’ in the body, this can be taken alongside loquat fruits or African sea-coconut tonics to cure the heat in the lungs. My mum’s favourite hack was making us sleep with white flower oil –a liquid ten times stronger than your classic Vicks vapour rub all over my pressure points. This potion actually created heat in the body to unclog the blocked Qi in the body which helped cure achy bones and flu symptoms. 

The list of potions and herb mixtures to aid and protect each Meridian is endless. Other sayings follow the same thinking, Chinese women are told not to wash their hair when they’re on their period as this exposes the head, the beginning of most meridian systems, to ‘Wind’. Days after the menstrual cycle, women should focus on replenishing the blood to avoid ‘Qi’ stagnation, and drinking the infamously bitter ‘Dong Quai’ tea or red dates are hugely helpful. 

My growing confidence in my British Chinese identity, along with crippling hypochondria and a ten-year struggle with acne finally led me to research into TCM myself. The education of an entire medicine theory, including the systems, concepts and herbal concoctions, from my bedroom in English-translated sources meant that finally I could unpack my mum’s lies. Every visit to my Chinese aunties and uncles, I was told repeatedly that the amount of candy and lack of exercise was causing my acne no longer seemed like lies, superstitions or hidden agendas, and in reality, had some sort of TCM core backing. After 8 years of pumping artificial hormones and antibiotics into my body, my self-proclaimed expertise in Chinese medicine helped me regain control of my skin.

Living in London today these herbs have never been more accessible. My monthly dose of ‘Dong Quai’ can be purchased at a local Holland and Barrets or Wholefoods, and some supermarkets sell a range of tinctures and tablet forms of ginseng and other herbs. I have even insisted that my non-Chinese friends practice some of the basics of TCM. After boasting the results of acne clearing teas, my housemate claimed that if it really works then why hasn’t Western doctors prescribed it? 

Western appropriations of TCM rely on anecdotal evidence, seen as an alternative and more benign approach to healing. There are claims to cure cancer, untreatable diseases and less tangible issues such as depression and anxiety a simple influx of chemicals or antibiotics just can’t plaster over. Although these practices have become more and more popular, alongside homeopathy and other more benign trends, it is, simply, the fact that using one antibiotic to systematically kill of all the bad (and good) bacteria in the body can cure an illness in around a week. There is a plethora of evidence, testing and strong scientific proof, there is even legal and institutional backing. Even though, antibiotics begs a host of underlying problems and side-effects, we have been normalised to endure this for fast results. 

Chinese medicine relies on the trials and tribulations of different herbs, unblocking of Qi through acupuncture, and overall lifestyle changes to harmonise the body’s Meridian systems. Sometimes there isn’t the luxury of time for this long-winded approach, and other times they, like me when I was younger, lack the discipline to simply accept ancestor’s teachings as the truth. It is a shame that it took me multiple Western prescriptions and unequivocal desperation for an acne cure to finally believe my mum’s claims, but no doubt will my children also drink all the herbs and potions I had to, with no explanation either. 

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

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