Culture //

Family practice

Cordelia Joseph on the cultural complexities of traditional Chinese medicine

At least once a year when I was a child, I caught a cough from another kid at school. I would do my best to hide it from my parents by holding my breath. At night I would sleep fitfully on my stomach, burying my face in the pillow to muffle the sound of coughing. Naturally, my parents always found out, and they would bring out the reason for my subterfuge: a tiny glass bottle of traditional Chinese cough syrup, brewed from bamboo. Its potently bitter taste was worse than the pain of the coughs. I cried whenever I was forced to drink it, and afterwards I would fervently pray for it to do nothing so that I would have an excuse to avoid taking more.

Without fail, that little bottle of syrup was as effective as it was bitter. Once the taste eventually left, I would finally be able to sleep uninterrupted.

Most Asian families have traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) around the house. Some keep it in the medicine cabinet, among the Band- Aids and blister packets of Nurofen. Others, like mine, blur the line between food and medicine. In the pantry, there is a packet of dried dendrobium orchid – used for replenishing fluids – resting against a fat jar of Nutella. We keep a bottle of pípágāo, a dark honey-like formula that dates back to the Qing Dynasty, in the same cupboard as the instant coffee.

TCM generates polarising opinions: from belief in its superiority over Western healthcare, to scepticism whether it should even be called medicine. Many young Asian-Australians grew up with traditional and Western medicine in concert. The flow of migrants from Asia has brought TCM businesses to most towns in Sydney with a sizeable Asian population. They tend to be small, cramped and lined with wooden drawers – each carefully labelled by hand, in brisk cursive script. My family patronises the shop of a wizened man who wraps all purchases in a sheet of crimson crepe paper, deftly folding in the corners to create an envelope of dried ingredients. For some Australians, these shops are as familiar as the sterile, disinfected offices of the local GP.

Eve*, a student at Sydney University, has visited her fair share of both Western and TCM clinics. Her parents migrated from China when she was an infant. “I’ve grown up with TCM,” she says. “My family has always used it. It’s part of our cultural legacy.”

Eve suffers from skin issues, including painfully itchy hives and eczema. Her first two doctors – TCM practitioners – struggled to produce satisfactory results. Every day for six months, she would stew a packet of herbs over a low flame on the stove. The steam that issued from the clay pot had a dense, bitter smell. After filtering out the loose plant matter, the liquid was black and grainy. She drank it from a bowl, wincing. Three times a week, she had an acupuncture appointment.

Some symptoms abated, others worsened; a severe rash flared up around her neck and shoulders. Eve decided to see a Western dermatologist. “She didn’t explicitly tell me to stop seeing the others but said it was dubious whether TCM was working at all,” she says.

“She focused on the surface of my skin, giving me an allergy test and sending skin cell samples to the lab, but I strongly felt that it was something internal. Western doctors are mostly concerned with managing the symptoms of chronic illness. A TCM doctor approaches treatment with the mindset that they want to cure the disease from its root.”

Eve found a third traditional doctor, who prescribed her new medication, aiming to boost her immune system and tackle her skin problems from the inside. Within two weeks, Eve’s faith in TCM was restored; her skin had stopped itching.

TCM, however, does not come cheap. “It can be a significant financial burden,” Eve says. “A full course sometimes has to be taken for months.”

My own family is no stranger to its handsome price tag. While vacationing in China last year, we stopped at a large clinic with a tour group. A dozen teenagers brought foot baths while doctors diagnosed us and scrawled prescriptions and prices. My usually frugal parents paid for several thousand dollars’ worth of medication to be delivered to our Australian address without blinking an eye.

For some people, any enthusiasm for TCM is foolish – an attitude that may stem from media representations of it as exotic, bizarre and too alternative to be real medicine. And though modern TCM is actually starting to resemble Western medicine, sold as colourful, gelatin capsules that could pass for Panadol, some of it is undeniably strange to the Western eye. Much is made of the more peculiar ingredients, such as the ophiocordyceps sinensis, also known as the “winter worm, summer grass”: a parasitic fungus that burrows into the live larvae of ghost moths, eventually killing them and growing a stalk out of their heads.

Yet such ingredients are almost banal to TCM proponents. My mother only shrugs when I ask her about it: “You can put it in soup, you can stew it, you can chew it dry,” she says. “It’s more plant than bug.”

At worst, TCM is portrayed as brutally outlandish – we’ve all seen the images of emaciated tigers and bears in cages. Eve calls these practices “absolutely awful”, but points out that they constitute a fraction of TCM. “The medicine that comes from animal abuse gets a disproportionate amount of attention,” she says. “Most traditional medicines are plant-based teas, balms, and oils.”

Arnold*, like Eve, hails from a Chinese migrant family, but regards TCM with a strong sense of scepticism.

“Although it seems to work in some cases, I think some of it is completely useless,” he says. He has tried TCM to limited success. “I didn’t have a choice. I took whatever my parents told me to take. And parents know what’s best for you, right?”

The last straw came when he was ten years old. His parents checked his nails and found white patches on them. They decided he had a stomach bug: ringworm. From a store in Carlingford Village, they brewed an infusion out of roots and herbs. “It looked like laksa,” Arnold says. “If only it tasted as good as laksa.”

He threw up after drinking the brew, and has taken Western medicine exclusively ever since. “The entire family has settled for the medicine from the local pharmacy,” he says. “Everyone else is entitled to keep using TCM however they wish. But personally, I would be careful giving it priority.”

Nevertheless, he remains open to the medical possibilities – if there is scientific proof. “If science could show that each type of TCM works, I’ll be one hundred per cent on board with it. I’ll make my future kids take it even if it tastes bad.”

For Eve, scientific proof is not a prerequisite for medication to be effective. “I understand the scepticism, because I’m also sceptical about TCM to an extent,” she says. “But it has persisted for millennia, and in the end, it’s the effectiveness that is important to me. It has worked for me when Western medicine hasn’t.”

Regardless of its effectiveness, TCM should not be regarded as exotic, frightening, or the product of stupidity. It is irrevocably a part of Asian culture, and deeply embedded in many families. When faced with the choice of medical treatment, all of us – Eve, Arnold, myself, and probably thousands of young Asian-Australians – straddle the gap between traditions and heritage, and the sensibilities of the country we live in.

*Name has been changed