Gone Native

When George Orwell was in Burma, he had a special interest and affinity with the Burmese, so much so that he got a set of tattoos that stayed with him for the rest of his life – little circles on his knuckles that the Burmese believed protected one from bullets and snake bites. It isn’t a matter of record how much he believed in the efficacy of the tattoos to really protect him from these things, of course, so one can only speculate how much he believed in Burmese spirituality. But it marked him out as different from the other sons of Empire. He had taken a step towards the culture of the land he lived in in a deeply intimate way.

It isn’t quite on the same level as getting a tattoo, but I felt like I crossed a threshold in my interaction with Chinese culture on Monday, when I experienced moxibustion for the first time. I have a complex relationship with Traditional Chinese Medicine. To the extent that I am culturally Chinese, it is supposed to be part of my culture, and since I feel some affinity to Chinese civilization in general I feel it is to some extent mine to claim. But I was brought up by two Western-trained doctors, and my childhood illnesses were all cured through the empirical, scientific methods of Western medicine. Interestingly, my mother, who was brought up with Chinese medicine, is pretty skeptical about it despite the fact that it saw her through her childhood, mainly because of just how unpleasant the treatments were. Growing up I received a very small amount of Chinese medicine in the form of certain foods and drinks that I ate when sick, since TCM places a strong emphasis on nutrition (a fact that makes it much more holistic than Western medicine really).

Anyhow, I went to a TCM practitioner with a friend to get a massage (who doesn’t love a massage?), and winded up getting talked into doing moxibustion as well. I have to admit, I was pretty scared. Traditional moxibustion involves burning mugwort on the skin to create a vacuum which sucks your flesh on your back into a small glass cup. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you see it) the lady didn’t use the traditional way of creating suction but rather had a modern machine which she attached the glass cup to. As I lay down on my front, she applied the contraption to my back in long strokes. It was a curious sensation, like being eaten by a giant octopus or a vacuum cleaner, and was painful when she repeated the strokes over the same flesh. And when she was done, I was left with angry, lurid, purple bruises on my back.

It wasn’t as though I didn’t expect to be bruised – I had seen the ugly cup marks on people’s backs before, and that was why I had been scared when presented with the moxibustion set. But I really hadn’t expected to get such angry looking bruises. I really looked like somebody had beaten me up with a huge bat. So it didn’t feel too bad at first, but by the time evening came around, my back was seriously sore. I couldn’t push my shoulder blades back to sit up straight because my flesh hurt when it touched the bruised parts. Lying on my back to sleep, I tried to stay as still as possible so I didn’t rub my back against anything, and I felt horrible the whole next day too.

There is something about allowing your body to be touched, or in this case, vacuumed, on the principle of another system of medicine that takes you to a whole other level of immersion in a culture. I wasn’t sure I was comfortable with this level of immersion. On the one hand, I wanted to believe. I wanted to believe that this process was truly unblocking my qi, or getting rid of my toxins, cleansing me of some mysterious blockages in my system. But on the other, my empirical suffering and my skeptical parents cautioned that if the cure was worse than the disease, it made no sense to do something. I am in a liminal space between believing and not believing, between this culture which is both mine and not mine, and the one I was brought up with. On the one hand is a rich, mysterious heritage that promises a complete alternative understanding of the body, and on the other is a scientific, proof-based system that my parents trained in, but has its own limitations and flaws. So do I go native, or do I not?

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