I’ve written a bit before about being sick in China – how to tell if you’re in a Chinese hospital, and the constant fight I face in trying to convince people that allergies and colds are not the same thing. But how do Chinese people deal with being sick? Well I’m glad you asked.
Disclaimer: I know nothing about Chinese medicine in depth, only what I’ve picked up from living here and people telling me things. I do not study or practice it. If you’re looking for reliable information, you won’t find very much here. The following simply details my own experiences and opinions relating to it. Spoiler alert: It’s sarcastic and not particularly positive. I’ve actually been told that I really have to believe in the treatments for them to work, but if that’s the case, then the entire thing is based on the placebo effect, and that seems like a dicey way to approach human health. If you’re going to leave me nasty comments saying I just don’t understand…well, you’re probably right, I don’t, and I likely never will totally understand (also, I’ll point out that at least I’ve tried some of these before making my own conclusion about them). So stop reading now. You’ve been warned.
First of all, we need to understand exactly what Chinese people think causes illness. From what I’ve heard, people here believe illness to be due to having too much or too little of something in one’s body. But what is that ‘something’? Germs? Bacteria? Viruses? Nope.
Usually it’s because you’ve got wind in your stomach or too much fire in you.
That’s right. Wind. And fire. Totally scientific and legit, huh?
They also tend to avoid the hard questions, such as “But if I have wind in my stomach, how did it get there? Isn’t a hole in my abdomen opening into my stomach a) a fairly serious problem, and b) wouldn’t I have noticed it by now?” or “If I have so much fire in me, why am I still absolutely freezing, even though I’ve closed the windows you opened and am wearing seven layers of long underwear indoors?”
You see, China still relies on a lot of old-school beliefs about illness – stuff that might have a tiny bit of truth, but in reality isn’t totally correct scientifically. Like the old “don’t go out with wet hair or you’ll catch a cold” myth. While most of us westerners understand this to mean that going out with wet hair makes you cold and weakens your body, making it unable to fight off infections from germs that you may encounter, which leads to you getting sick, Chinese people have insisted to me that it is a direct link. Even my mother-in-law, a doctor who does bloodwork, often shows very little recognition of viruses and bacteria as causes for illness.
Anyway, so now that you’ve got this wind in your stomach or fire in you, and you’re sick, what are your treatment options? It is true that western medicine has come to China – antibiotics are borderline abused here (not surprising considering that one can buy them over the counter at any local pharmacy), and antibiotic IVs are many doctors’ go-to prescription now (especially because they cost more, earning the clinic or hospital more money).
But if you’re not going to go this route (or if you’re like me and are allergic to some penicillin but not all, and are a bit wary of the Russian roulette approach to perhaps having a lethal reaction to medication), here are some things you might try:
Herbal medicines – Many OTC medications here are made from herbs and plants. I’ve taken many for many different ailments over my years here, with varying results. Some seem to work fine, others not at all, and you often have to take massive doses – think handfuls of pills, multiple times daily. Also, they seem to be very, very slow to start working most of the time, and you have to take the medicine for a long period of time. I’ve also noticed that almost none of them have ever done anything to alleviate my symptoms.
Many of these are pills or liquids, though they can come in other forms. Faithful readers might recall the herbal plaster prescribed to me for my back around this time last year. My review of it? It was smelly, itchy, pulled all the hair out (it was like a BandAid from hell), made the skin under it break out in a rash, and some of the plaster got all over my clothes and still won’t come out. Oh, and it had seemingly no effect on my back.
Traditional Chinese medicine – AKA, the assortment of various plants, animal parts, and goodness-only-knows-what-other-stuff (you know, like bear bile and deer penis and so on) that a doctor measures into a paper envelope and that you’re supposed to boil into what most people tell me is the world’s nastiest (looking/smelling/tasting) tea and drink. I’ve never had this. I’m absolutely OK with never having had this.
Old wives tales-type treatments – You’ll probably encounter these kinds of things within a Chinese family setting. For instance, if my stomach feels uncomfortable, my husband will often brew up a ‘tea’ of water, sugar, and ginger and make me drink it. It’s sort of like when your mom made you eat chicken soup as a kid (which, by the way, Chinese people think is an absolutely insane treatment for illness, so it’s a two-way street).
My mother-in-law has also taken it further by chopping up ginger and mashing it into my belly button to settle my stomach (maybe that’s where the hole is where the wind keeps getting in?). And when the ginger/sugar tea and ginger in my belly button didn’t work, she did the following: told me to relax and that what she was about to do wouldn’t hurt, squeezed my fingers (except the middle one) from tip to hand, followed by tightly squeezing whatever she was pushing up into my middle finger toward the tip, stabbed me in the knuckle of my middle finger with a needle and squeezed out some liquid (I suspect it may have been bone marrow – that’s how deep it felt). She thinks it cured me, since I got up the next morning and my stomach felt better, but I never told her that about an hour after she did that, I threw up and only then did my stomach settle (shhh, don’t tell her). Oh, and she lied to me – it did hurt…a lot (and she gets a big kick out of threatening to do it again anytime I’m ever feeling the teensiest bit under the weather).
Gua Sha – In this traditional practice, an oil is rubbed on the skin and then a hard piece of plastic (like a comb without the teeth) is dragged over and over and over across your skin, scraping it off, leaving you with red scrapes and sometimes even open wounds. Supposedly the areas that are the darkest or open and bleeding are where you are the most sick. I’ve had it done on my back a few times (my husband and I have done it to each other at home). In my opinion, if you’re looking for a rough massage that could leave you with some scabs, then gua sha is for you; but if you’re looking to treat an actual illness, I’ll tell you that I’ve never noticed any effect. In my case, the darkest marks coincided with my spine and shoulder blades (but I’m sure that the fact that there is significantly less flesh there as an explanation as to why those areas are more irritated has never occurred to anyone).
Perhaps more distressingly, my husband does a variation of this on himself when he has a sore throat or cough. He uses his index and middle finger knuckles to squeeze and pull the skin covering his Adam’s apple out, so forcefully that when the skin comes out from between his fingers, the fingers snap together. He repeats it over and over until he has a vertical black bruise on the front of his neck. He says it helps increase circulation to the area and helps it heal faster. My verdict? I’m calling complete BS on this one – he did it this spring and two weeks later was still coughing and hacking up stuff…the only difference was that he was doing it while sporting a big bruise on his neck.
Cupping – This one has made it to some corners of the west, so you may have heard of it. In this, the oxygen is burned out of a glass jar or cup which is then placed quickly on the skin, creating a vacuum and sucking the skin up and into the jar. It is supposed to draw out toxins. I’ve had it done a few times, and my husband and I do practice it at home from time to time. My take on it is that it is a bit of a weird feeling, but not bad or painful, kind of relaxing and massage-like once the jars are all placed. But again, I don’t think it accomplished much in the way of treating an illness or even alleviating symptoms. Like in gua sha, supposedly the darkest marks are the locations where you are the most sick. The first time I had this done was while I had a bad cough/chest infection. They used the super dark mark on my chest as proof I was really sick there – duh, I’d already been diagnosed…and also because that area has no flesh, just skin and bone.
Acupuncture – Strangely enough, the most well-known Chinese medical treatment in the west is pretty darned hard to find here (at least in my neck of the woods). My husband actually told me he didn’t think it was Chinese. I’ve since heard of one acquaintance of a co-worker’s wife who does it, but the co-worker isn’t sure if he practices it professionally or just stabs people with really thin needles as a hobby (I’m hoping the former, sheesh). I also think I saw it on a sign we passed in the hallway of one of the hospitals here in town. Needless to say, I’ve never had it. I’d be willing to try it – I mean, from the above you can see that I’ll try just about anything once.
Wait! Don’t fret!! There is one miracle cure that any Chinese, from doctors to regular Zhou’s on the street will prescribe to you that treats any and all problems, from headaches to toothaches to the flu to a cold to cancer to ingrown toenails.
What is it? you inquire earnestly.
I had an ingrown toenail last week and really could have used this advice then, you’re thinking.
Why isn’t such earth-shattering information made public? you desperately plead.
Never fear – I’m here to break the silence.
THE cure-all for any and all ailments, according to Chinese people?
Drink hot water.
(And yes, I know that drinking water is good for keeping yourself healthy, and that keeping hydrated is recommended for several illnesses, but somehow I doubt it’s going to cure hepatitis or repair broken bones. Eye roll. Also, yes, it must be hot – cold water will actually make you sick according to a lot of folks here.)