It was at the time of the change of seasons, the end of fall and the beginning of winter, when everyone at the office had a cold or came down with some kind of flu. I had had a cold for a few days and stomach ache on and off, so on a sunny morning in mid-December I decided to take a day off from work and go see a doctor. In China there are usually two options when you’re sick. You can either go to a hospital and be sent from one floor to the next one to pay thousands of different small bills in order to see a doctor, or you can go to a pharmacy and see a TCM practitioner. I had been to hospitals in China quite a few times before. I didn’t mind the fact that in hospitals in China you usually weren’t the only person in the room with the doctor and that there were often 5-10 more people listening to your ailments. No matter the ailment, doctors here will often ask you things about your menses or if you’ve ever had an abortion. Things you probably wouldn’t want to share with strangers. I didn’t mind other people listening in on my conversation with the doctor. I even thought it was interesting to hear the ailments of other people. What I did mind though was the complicated process of registering, the queuing up with thousands of other sick people who often didn’t keep their distance, paying all the different bills and finding the right department. I did not consider myself being good enough in cutting lines that I wanted to take it up with all the other patients, even more so when I was sick. So on this one day in mid-December I went to a pharmacy instead.
The first pharmacy I came across seemed to be the stomping ground for retirees. I took a quick look inside and saw lots of mostly elderly people sitting on chairs, some having weird instruments on their heads, some sitting there with acupuncture needles in their skin, chatting the day away. Right next to the entrance was a desk with a sign “TCM practitioner”. A doctor in his 40s came up to me from the back of the pharmacy and asked me what I was looking for. I said I was looking for a doctor of TCM. He gave me a chair and asked me to sit down. He sat down on the opposite side of the desk and started to feel the pulse of my left arm. When he was finished with the left arm, he felt the pulse of the right arm. He then wanted to see my tongue. All the while I chatted with the two ladies who were sitting closest to me and with the doctor.
Doctor: “Do you often have problems with your stomach? Your stomach is quite weak.”
I: “I do.”
Lady 1: “You came to see the right doctor. I have been to many doctors before, but he’s the only one who could help me cure my illness.”
I: “That’s great.”
Doctor: “Do you know how to cook Chinese medicine?”
I: “I do.”
Lady 2: “Apparently foreigners like going to TCM practitioners nowadays.”
I: “I don’t tolerate Western medicine too well, that’s why I prefer seeing a Chinese doctor.”
Doctor: “My friends in Germany and the US don’t dare taking Western medicine anymore. They only take herbal medicine.”
Lady 1 to Lady 2: “Look at her, talking to the doctor in Chinese. Isn’t it great how they can communicate. So many foreigners are learning Chinese nowadays, and many speak it really well. Isn’t that great?”
While I’m waiting for the doctor to prepare my medicine, he asks me: “Aren’t your parents worried about you, living abroad all on your own?
I: “Sometimes they are, but that’s normal, I guess.
Doctor: “Well, Shenzhen is still okay, compared to other places in China.”
I: “Shenzhen is a great city indeed. I’ve been living in Kunming before, Kunming isn’t bad either.”
The doctor looks at me, surprised. But before he can say anything else a patient calls out for him and he has to get going.
On a side note: Chinese medicine in its traditional form are usually dried herbs in their original shape (not processed, except that they are dried and maybe cut into smaller pieces) – eg. roots, leaves, etc., after you cook them you can drink the medicine like tea, but it usually tastes a lot worse than tea and the preparation is more complicated too.
Have you ever been to a TCM practitioner? What are your experiences with Chinese medicine?