Rediscovering Traditional Chinese Medicine

I graduated from college a little bit less than two years ago, and I’m a completely different person than I was back then. Sometimes I feel the urge to wince when I spend too much time dwelling on the kind of person that I was back then, but I have to remind myself not to fault myself too much for who I was. I don’t want to hold any grudges or negativity for that person, but I can’t help but wish that I had the same perspective and beliefs I have now. But like everybody else, I was merely a product of my circumstances.

Growing up, I had never really been given (nor did I take) enough free time to explore who I was and what I liked. While I was growing up, I always chose escapism rather than creativity, and my most common form of escapism was consuming media or spending time with friends. My parents were very traditional, a clean cut from the cloth of the society that they were raised in. And although I didn’t agree or abide by those values the way my parents hoped that I would, I wasn’t able to escape the neuroticism. I inherited an incessant need to be on the move all the time, to plan my free time down to the five minute mark. I wanted to be around people, I wanted to be in a relationship, I wanted to take a certain class my second semester of my junior year. I was constantly plagued by the worry of what would come next, and I’m not sure if I ever stopped to catch my breath. If I did, I was probably resentful that I wasn’t doing something to fill that time.

If I had any free time at all, I spent it watching TV and being out with friends. Sure, I had interests, likes, and dislikes, but I had never given myself the space to really explore them. Even my interests, like exploring identity (race, gender, etc.), were intellectual. I had the same interests as my peers, many of whom had also never taken enough time away from work or school to develop hobbies other than exploring restaurants and Netflix. I had very few job prospects after college, but I’d always dreamed of being lawyer, so I ended up applying to law school, and accepting an offer to start that fall.

However, the school ended up offering me more money to defer, so I decided to take the opportunity to move to China. I had never studied abroad, and I had never felt quite “Chinese” enough. I didn’t speak the language as fluently as I wanted to and my parents didn’t care for cultural traditions and holidays. And although I had grown up with other Chinese kids when I was younger, those friendships disappeared as we moved to other states. I outgrew the stage where my parents introduced me to kids my own age, and by the time I was in high school and college, my friends were predominantly white. I wanted to feel more in touch with my identity, and I ended up moving back to the city that I was born in, a city that is infamous now: Wuhan, China.

I was more or less the same person for the four, five months that I was there, with one major difference. My work schedule was only about 20 to 25 hours a week. Never in my life did I have that much free time, and I recklessly abused it. I spent all of my free time with friends, went out drinking at least three times a week, and had to spend my free time recovering from those nights. I was still the type of person who barely had any defining hobbies or interests, and still resented spending any of my free time alone. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I wanted constantly to escape or to be stimulated by my surroundings. Being left alone with just my thoughts was something I actively avoided — I even played podcasts at two times the speed so that my mind was too preoccupied to wander in another direction.

I left Wuhan less than two weeks before the lockdown started and a global pandemic began its reign over all of our lives. I traveled a ton, backpacking through Southeast Asia and even moving to Mexico for a little bit. I didn’t return home until April when the Mexican border closed to nonessential travel, and it seemed unsafe for me to stay on the road because of how rapidly COVID was spreading in North America.

I went back to my parents’ house, still teaching remotely, but only working 5–10 hours per week. My days would have felt aimless, but I threw myself into a job search and the goal of being healthy again. I had treated my body like trash for the last couple of months, both while traveling and while I was in China. I drank way too much, way too regularly, and I ate out for every single meal because of how cheap the street food was. In November, I got a pretty serious bout of food poisoning, to the point where I couldn’t stand up straight for several days because the stomach pain was so severe. A month later, I got the flu, and was bedridden with a fever and chills. And a month after that, on my backpacking trip, I got another case of food poisoning. I could only keep down bland, starchy foods, and remained nauseous for the next couple of days after the initial 24 hours of vomiting. After my second bout of food poisoning, something in my gut was completely thrown off. I had debilitating stomachaches nearly every day that would come in waves, had almost no detectable trigger, and prevented me from being able to focus on anything because of the pain and discomfort. I could actually hear my stomach attempting to digest food, like a rusty car engine on the verge of collapse. I was permanently bloated for weeks on end, and I had endless gas and distention.

The symptoms were severe enough that I knew something deeper was wrong, but I didn’t know what. I went to a doctor to get an endoscopy, but he told me nothing was wrong and suggested a colonoscopy to get a look through the other end of my digestive tract. After that, he again told me nothing was wrong, and I started becoming visibly frustrated with that answer. At this point, they had looked through my entire digestive tract and I was out almost $2,000, but he seemed impatient to move onto the patient into the next room without telling me how to move forward; if I needed more tests, a different diet, whatever. As he started to realize that I was upset, he told me I had IBS, an exclusionary diagnosis that is frankly ambiguous in nature, and came only after my very apparent irritation. I wanted to be relieved that I had a problem with some kind of name and treatment guidelines, but I barely believed him. Plus, I had already been following an IBS diet, and I wasn’t feeling any better.

The weeks that I was in pain, scheduling appointments, and wasting money, my mother was in the background, constantly saying me that my body simply had too much 寒气 (hán qì, or chill). With how much she rambles, I didn’t pay much attention to what she was saying. But after weeks with Western medicine, I felt like I’d exhausted my other options, so I tried something she was using: 艾灸 or moxibustion. An overly simplified explanation of moxibustion is the burning of dried mugwort on parts of the body, almost like a spot treatment, and is used for a wide variety of illnesses.

To my amazement, it actually began to make me feel better. I found more relief through moxibustion than anything else, and I picked up a near daily habit of it. Because I had the mind of a skeptic, there’s no way it was a placebo effect. I had grown up with my mom providing almost daily tidbits of TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) knowledge, and I’d ignored it every single day. But the pain began to diminish after the first couple of days, so I finally decided to sit down with my mother to ask her what she thought was wrong with me.

My mother reminded me that I had spent months, specifically the winter months, eating piles of fruit in a bikini. Winter was for eating warming foods like cooked root vegetables, not raw smoothie bowls. I was constantly by the ocean, another chill factor, and I always had bare skin exposed, allowing excess wind to enter my body. She said my body was simply out of balance from being exposed to so much cold, and that I needed to reset it by warming it again. Since I felt like I reached the end of the road with Western medicine, I was willing to give it a shot. I started eating whatever she told me to eat, and avoiding whatever she told me to avoid. I started learning about the innate warming and cooling properties of foods, which are not always intuitive; for example, green tea with the steam coming off of it is actually a cooling drink. I barely believed it, but it was the only diet that seemed to alleviate my stomach problems. I started taking tablets from an herbal TCM pharmacy, and they started to help, too. It wasn’t immediate, but gradually, the pain began to diminish, my stomachaches became less frequent, and I started to feel better generally. Independently, I began to learn more about TCM, taking a particular interest in food and tea, not just as a general path to long term health, but as treatments for disease. I learned that traveling extensively had completely thrown off my body clock and my Circadian rhythm, and that my digestive system, the root of health in so many practices, was shot. My immune system was down and I was completely out of balance.

Most of the TCM eating was preventative, but once my stomach began to hurt, there wasn’t a lot that I could do. At that point, one of the only things that helped was asana practice, and I started to build my daily practice there.Being on my mat became a source of physical comfort and therapy for me, and I started dedicating all of my free time to learning more about TCM and Yoga. They were inextricably linked, and I was becoming more and more of a believer.

I was always a deeply rational and logical person, someone who only believed in the things that I could see, so this was a dramatic shift for me. My entire belief system was coming apart, but it felt like things were falling into place rather than spiraling out of control. TCM was millions of years old, and I felt a personal connection to it. I was born in China, and my body composition is more similar, better understood by a lifestyle and treatment system that was developed by my ancestors. The more I learned, the more the dots connected, and I couldn’t believe it had taken me this long to rediscover.

Spirituality wasn’t yet a big part of my life yet, but my growing adherence to cultivating my qi would eventually allow me connect to my spiritual body. I was slowly letting go of my rigidity, my desire to see Western facts and data for everything. And fundamental to the philosophy of TCM, Ayurveda, and Yoga is the concept of energy & energy channels. In TCM, there are twelve primary meridians in the body, and eight minor ones. In Ayurveda, there are thousands of nadis, or energy channels, but most of us are familiar with the primary sushumna channel that contains our chakras. These channels govern the internal, necessary balance that keeps us healthy. And at the end of the day, that’s all that I was chasing — to be healthy. The belief and commitment to a different lifestyle was never my goal, only a byproduct. It was never my intention to self-actualize some kind of stereotype.

Today, I can’t imagine turning back to the profit seeking, short term belief system that grounds Western medicine. Just one year ago, when I got to Wuhan, I used to make fun of herbal medicine because they would prescribe six pills to be taken with each meal, three times a day. If I wanted pain relief, I wanted it immediately, in the form of one, easy to swallow pill. Now, I would stop to ask myself what the root cause of that pain was, and what decisions I made that placed me in that situation. I’m in the process of letting go of the control issues I once had, and a big part of that is releasing the desire to manipulate and alter my body with Western medicine to optimize comfort and ease. I can’t imagine going back to the profit seeking, short term belief system that grounds Western medicine and even most Western lifestyles.

I’m happier and healthier. My mind is generally calm, rather than anxiously planning every minute of my future. I am more patient, easygoing, and understanding; softer and more in tune with my emotions. Although it’s a continuing journey, I am the person I am today because I was given the chance to reconnect with traditional Chinese medicine.

My name’s Viv and I use she or they pronouns. I’m a 23 year old Chinese American living in North Carolina. I like writing about identity, race, and healing.