In Defense of Chinese Traditional Medicine

Last week, I attended a class called “Chinese Panorama.” The purpose of this 5-week class is to give an overview of Chinese history and culture as a precursor to understanding modern-day China within the context of its past. That’s quite a task to accomplish in only several hours per week. Given the length and complexity of Chinese history, I had no idea what topics we were going to cover. We went over some classic Chinese inventions, such as gunpowder, and then touched on Chinese Traditional Medicine!

Chinese Traditional Medicine (CTM) is a point of national pride. The Chinese government even promotes the development of CTM as a part of their national economic and social development plan, supporting funding for scientific research related to CTM – I’m definitely curious to see how this research is designed and received.

There’s been some debate about this topic and I want to go over some of the nuances before I dive into my support of CTM. First of all, I don’t view CTM and western medicine as polar opposites. Western medicine has no doubt radically extended our life expectancy; however, our current medical system places emphasis on reactionary care, which is what western medicine does best. Recently, there was controversy over a Chinese actress who used CTM to treat her cancer – some view her death as evidence that CTM only has a placebo effect. Yet, this view fails to acknowledge what CTM does best, prevention. So where does prevention end and reactionary treatment begin?

Inflammation triggered by free radicals is a common catchphrase in the health world. CTM, specifically herbal medicine, targets the root of this problem. One theory of disease is that chronic inflammation plays a role in triggering a plethora of diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and arthritis. With this, genetic, environmental factors, and one’s immune system also plays a role in causing illness. When the body accumulates too many free radicals, caused by junk food, pesticides, fried foods, or alcohol, the body goes into a state of oxidative stress, an imbalance between the body’s production of free radicals and antioxidants. This state can activate inflammation, contributing to diseases such as cancer. Hence, the health craze for consuming more antioxidants as a means of disease prevention.

free radicals.png

So let’s go back to CTM. In light of the Chinese government’s push to promote CTM, an article in The Economist presents a decent overview of arguments by both CTM supporters and skeptics. The article notes that CTM lacks research to prove its effectiveness due to the lack of randomized control trials (RTC), the gold standard for proving a treatment’s effectiveness. Despite this gap, studies focused on the antioxidant activity of CTM’s herbal remedies do exist. Perhaps the ancient Chinese understood the concept of antioxidants well before modern-day scientists discovered their immune-boosting powers.

Here’s three CTM herbal remedies with proven antioxidant powers and where to buy them:

1. Red sage (Salvia miltiorrhiza or 丹参) appears in several studies – not only does it shows promising anti-cardiovascular disease results, but it also has antioxidant properties, as measured by the herb’s ORAC score know as (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity), a way of measuring an antioxidant’s ability to fight free radicals. Unfortunately, ORAC scores are no longer used due to lack of regulation and misuse by companies seeking to promote their dietary supplements. However, you can see an index of scores from highest to lowest here. Red sage comes as a supplement and it’s easy to buy on Amazon. The target disease it prevents is heart disease.

red sage.jpg

2. Chinese hawthorn fruit (Shan Zha 山楂) also has proven antioxidant components. In CTM, Shan Zha is also used to treat heart disease by lowering cholesterol and supporting the link between free radicals and heart disease. Supplements are also available on Amazon or in candy form if you can find them fresh and follow this recipe – possibly great for making them child-friendly. Note: beware if you already have abnormally low blood pressure.

berry.jpg

3. Ginseng (人渗) is helpful in regulating type 2 diabetes and upper respiratory infections. It’s also proven to have antioxidant properties and the source comes from an RTC. I’m sharing a skeptical article called “Why You Should Be Careful About Ginseng,” which acknowledges Ginseng’s immune system boosting power while warning the reader that ginseng is not a cure-all treatment.

gensing

Advertisements

What to eat when it’s 100 degreees?~ A healthy spin on a classic Chinese summer dish!

What’s my major food weakness? It’s not burgers or pizza- it’s noodles!

As Anthony Bourdain once said, “Noodles, for me, are a solitary pleasure: between me and my bowl.”

I couldn’t agree more. There’s something so freeing about walking into a small noodle shop in Suzhou and enjoying a bowl of noodles by myself. Since the language spoken around me isn’t my mother tongue, China is a nice break from the distractions of the outside world. I’m the lone 外国人(foreigner) and chances are no one is going to initiate conversation with me. I’m at the same time alone and yet surrounded by other people. And so, I can explore my inner world while enjoying the warm, comforting slurp-iness of noodles.

As someone who has frequent blood sugar fluctuations, I’ve been trying to limit my carb intake. I can go without bread, rice, and possibly beer, but noodles just make me lose control. My Chinese host mom is also a noodle freak and she has diabetes. Apparently, she ate too many noodles when she was younger, or so she told me – I’m still not sure if she was joking. So I asked her: how does she balance managing a low carb diet with her love of noodles?

She maintains a 1:4 ratio of carbs to veggies. What does that mean? Well, it isn’t really a precise measurement, but more of a guideline for how you plate should look. What does that look like in practice? Here’s my adaptation of a classic Chinese summer dish from Sichuan.

Sichuan Cold Noodles & Shredded Veggies 

Serving:1                                                                                                        Prep time: 20 minutes

Steps:

  1. Boil noodles. Then drain and rinse in cold water.IMG_20180626_175713.jpg
  2. Cut and add veggiesIMG_20180626_174601.jpg
  3. Mix in toppings to your liking. No Chinese person seems to have an exact measurement, so I highly suggest tasting as you go.IMG_20180627_174619.jpg

Ingredients

1 cup of noodles

1 shredded cucumber

Optional: 1/2 cup shredded carrots

1 tablespoon of sesame oil

Add a dash (or more) of the following to your liking

Lajiao – more on where to buy and how to make it yourself to come!

Rice vinegar

Cilantro

1 Garlic clove

2 Green onions

This is what my 1/4 carb-to-veggies dinner looked like.

*** Check back soon for suggested side dish recipes***

 

IMG_20180626_181841.jpg

Stages of Culture Shock

Just for fun, I’m going to reflect on the stages of culture shock I experienced as an English teacher in Beijing. Regrettably, I didn’t keep a blog during that time. So here you go, one year of living in China summarized into four neatly titled stages.

Stage 1: Initial Euphoria and Excitement. You have just arrived in a new country and have great expectations and a positive mindset. Everything seems exciting, and you find many similarities between the local culture and your own.

Everyone was so nice my first day! When I landed in Beijing, the only Chinese words I knew were 你好 (hello) and 谢谢 (thank you). I was probably also familiar with 我要一瓶啤酒 or I want a beer, an essential phrase for travel in any country. The driver my school sent to pick me up from the airport spoke zero English. With my Chinese address at hand, this shouldn’t have been a problem. However, my new roommates had to work late and couldn’t meet me at our new home. Plane food sucks and I was starving. In retrospect, I want a beer would have come in handy at this point. Somehow, I managed to communicate that I wanted to be dropped off at a restaurant. The driver dropped me at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant where I used hand gestures to order noodles for the wait. When my roommate finally called,  I had no idea how to describe my location or how to read the signs around me in Chinese. She said “Where are you? I’ll come get you.”I responded, “I’m at the KTV.” I said this as if there was only one KTV in China or at least only one located near my new apartment.  She laughed. “There’s a million KTV’s in China! Can’t you read anything else around you?” Not a chance. ALL the signs were in Chinese. Finally, I desperately pointed to the phone and handed it to the restaurant owner. To this day, I can’t imagine someone being this nice to be in America. Not only did this restaurant worker help my roommate find me, he also carried my two 50+ lbs bags to the street corner. It’s worth noting that he was the only employee working in the restaurant so this left the store completely empty.

Stage 2: Irritation and Hostility. You may be frustrated and annoyed with cultural differences. Small difficulties seem like major catastrophes, and you may be more emotional than usual.

I don’t want to go too much into this one. Travel to China yourself and see what annoys you. You can take your pick of ways to have your personal space invaded. One of the most egregious things to me was the lack of a good Samaritan law. Basically, I saw a woman get hit by a bus and no one helped her. But apparently, that’s changing. The Chinese tech company Alibaba offers a yearly insurance plan at 50 cents per year covering  $3,100 worth of legal fees. If you want to be helpful there, get insurance.

Stage 3: Gradual Adjustment. Now you are becoming familiar with the host culture. You begin to understand its logic and values. Cultural cues become easier to read. You feel more comfortable and less isolated. Your sense of humor returns.

At this point, I like China. I have Chinese friends and eat dinner at their houses. For some reason, I am suddenly annoyed by all the spitting and find it hilarious at the same time. My teacher friends use a picture of a man smoking with his classic Beijing facemask hanging around his neck as an example of irony.

Stage 4: Adaptation and Biculturalism. Finally, you are able to fully enjoy the customs, attitudes, and ways of saying and doing things in the host country.

Now, I love using the squatty potties and I’ve forgotten how to use a public bathroom in American. Why is it so high? I genuinely never thought I’d get to that point because I found them so repulsive at first.

On a more serious note, I’ve come to respect the Chinese people. I think it’s easy, as Americans, to push the ideas of democracy on other countries without understanding their historical context. When I was doing a unit on feminism with my Chinese students, the suffragette movement seemed pretty irrelevant to them. Imagining not having the right to vote wasn’t very difficult for them since they don’t. It’s also important to remember that 75 years ago China was occupied by Japan and over 15 million people died of famine during the great leap forward in the 1960s. With a recent history of national trauma, can we blame a country of pragmatically accepting less than ideal political conditions for economic security and individual prosperity? Yes, I have my opinions as an America (I love that we’re a democracy), but I don’t think it’s my place to judge China.

IMG_20170608_185441

Pre-departure Goals

Thanks for joining me. I’m currently 12 hours away from touching down in Shanghai! Before arriving and beginning my language pledge – I can only speak Chinese throughout the program – I wanted to create some learning goals for my 4th trip landing in “The Paris of the East.”  According to the CLS Participant Hand, there are four phases of culture shock. This blog won’t focus on any of these stages.

Ok, I lied. I can’t help myself and already wrote a post reflecting on these stages. Done. Now I can focus on the parts of Chinese culture I’d like to highlight throughout my journey.

So what is the purpose of this blog? Here are my learning goals for the program:

  1. Explore eastern medicine.

    My first experience with Chinese traditional medicine (CTM) began with terror. I was receiving a foot massage when all of a sudden I saw a jolt of fire and felt a stinging sensation on my feet. Cupping involves lighting fire to create suction on the body, encouraging blood flow and sedating the nervous system. Similar to cupping, the Gua Sha treatment, also a CTM technique, is highlighted in an American movie involving a dad accused of child abuse for performing CTM on his sick son.  While this movie is from the 80’s, I still don’t think current western medicine acknowledges eastern medicine enough as a preventative treatment. After having a couple of glasses of wine too many, I let my Chinese friend studying CTM perform acupuncture on me. This probably wasn’t the best idea, although the experience led to a level a relaxation I’d never felt before. Aside from these experiences, I don’t have much knowledge of CTM and I’d like to learn more about the philosophy and perhaps take Tai Chi or Qigong classes. There are also too many similarities to yoga for me to ignore.

  2. Learn how to cook healthy Chinese recipes

    I LOVE Chinese vegetables! The texture. The variety. The flavors. Chinese cooks know how to do vegetables right- a not so secret secret- I couldn’t tell the difference between cabbage and lettuce when I first arrived in Beijing. And there are so many types of cabbage. Oh, and the lotus root! Yum. Hopefully, my host family loves them too. I’m waking up at 6:00 am every day to cook with my host mom, and I’ll be posting the recipes here!

  3. Keep a daily yoga practice.

    And now I come to my practice. I’m a bad yogi. I hate to admit it, but I’m driven by external motivation. Even though the practice helps ease my mind so much, stepping on my mat every day without the Mysore room’s chorus of breath cheering me on is daunting. CLS requires that I study Chinese 5 hours a day, meet with a language partner, and complete 2-4 hours of homework a night. Oh, and I’m ONLY allowed to speak Chinese. Keeping a daily practice is going to be hard.

    And here comes the paradox of practicing while participating in an intensive language program. I will be tired and won’t feel like practicing; yet, I will NEED the practice. Non-attachment is key to my survival as a language student, especially one studying a tonal language. Every time I speak must be like executing an asana – I’ll give it my all with zero attachment to the outcome. Just like getting hung up on perfecting asanas, obsessing over misspeaking will ruin my experience. Yoga is a powerful tool for isolating and correcting negative self-dialog.

    IMG_20170607_185346