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White People are Commodifying Chinese Medicine Just Like They Did With Yoga
Chinese medicine is such an important part of my life and my identity, so when I see it become a white people trend, I immediately have a lot of questions.
By Sally Yue Lin
“Have you tried acupuncture yet?” I overheard one white girl asking another.
Frowning skeptically, I thought to myself: first they come for our food and now our medicines too?
For someone like me, a Han Chinese woman who grew up with traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the increasing trendiness of some TCM practices—such as acupuncture—makes me uncomfortable and concerned.
When I was a little girl, my mother would feed me candies between sips of Kam Wo tea to coax me into drinking the bitter medicine. My pópó would rub my forehead tenderly with Tiger Balm when I had a headache. Of course, we did use Western medicine—such as birth control and immunizations—but only when absolutely necessary.
In the past few years, TCM has become more popular with non-Asians across North America, which makes me worried that it is becoming commodified in a similar way as yoga. If so, who is telling the stories behind this ancient tradition and who gets to make money off it?
For example, the increasing popularity of the cupping technique among swim bros and white celebrities is intriguing for many white people who view it as an odd curiosity to gawk at. These articles may be well-intentioned and the readers genuinely curious, but they still Other those of us who have been using cupping for generations. It shows how many non-Asian clients see TCM as an exoticized alternative to their sterile and familiar Western medicine.
But for us Asians, these practices that we grew up with are often what we are most comfortable with. Herbal teas and Tiger Balm are what we turn to when we are feeling unwell; their taste and scents carry deep emotional meanings, family stories, and connections to our cultures’ philosophical and religious beliefs. Chinese medicine is such an important part of my life and my identity, so when I see it become a White people trend, I immediately have a lot of questions.
Let’s first look at who gets to tell these stories. The schools that offer “Oriental Medicine” degrees often employ white teachers and practitioners. Are these really the right people to be sharing the historical, religious, philosophical basis of TCM with their predominantly white students? Asians have to work harder in white spaces to prove our abilities, so why shouldn’t white people have to work harder in Asian spaces to prove their credibility? We must challenge these white TCM teachers practitioners and test their worth in order to keep them accountable. We need to be protective of our medicinal heritage and be cautious of white people who want to “discover” these practices and claim it as their own, just because they find it “interesting”.
Based on a quick Google search of my mid-sized city on the West coast of Canada, almost 80% of health clinics offering acupuncture were owned, operated, and staffed by white people (sometimes they had one token Asian staff member, which is almost worse). Not surprisingly, too many of the clinics displayed “oriental” symbols (such as the yin yang and Chinese characters) as a way to signal “authenticity” to their clients, many of whom have a limited understanding of the linguistic and philosophical/religious contexts of TCM.
This is similar to trends in foodie culture where “ethnic” foods that were once deemed gross by white kids are now the latest craze. Similarly, when I was growing up, gua sha and cupping were seen as strange by the non-Asian kids I went to school with. But now, many millennials are flocking to acupuncture clinics and drinking goji berry teas. Yet it is hard not to tsk at ignorant white tourists, mesmerized by the vivid colours and smells in the family-owned herbal shops in our quickly gentrifying Chinatowns, rudely giggling at the “curiosities”.
Okay, yes, even though I am only in my late-20s, I have become that Asian aunty, standing by the bulk ginseng bins, clucking at the caucasity.
But is “Oriental medicine” just a Chinese tradition? Asia is a big place with many groups of peoples who share a long, and often messy, history spanning thousands of years. By calling these medicinal practices “Chinese”, it erases the many other folk traditions that have influenced each other through cross-cultural sharing of medical knowledge and practices. For example, other traditions that are often erased in the marketing of TCM include Ayurveda in India, Tibetan medicine, Kampo in Japan, Hanyak in Korea, and Thuốc Nam in Vietnam. Unique regional traditions arose out of the flora and fauna indigenous to those areas and were adapted to suit the needs and preferences of the local peoples. Chinese imperialism in Asia is well-documented and we should be conscious of how this impacts medicinal practices as well.
As a cultural practice becomes popularized by white people and goes mainstream, we always have to ask: who is profiting from the selling of these practices? We need to pay attention to the growing commodification of traditional practices by white practitioners. Do any of the profits flow back to local Chinese communities, senior centres, or immigrant settlement services? Are these practitioners aware of the history of Chinese diaspora in North America and the racism and discrimination that we have faced? Even more importantly, are these non-Chinese TCM practitioners showing up for the issues that matter to us today?
If you’re Asian and feel uncomfortable when you hear your white friends raving about how they love acupuncture now, you are not alone. It is weird. Much of our medicinal knowledge are passed down from generation to generation; these gifts are our family heirlooms inherited from our ancestors. They deserve our respect and protection from cultural appropriation.
If you’re white and wondering about whether you can ever use TCM in a dignified and appreciative way, I encourage you to ask yourself some hard questions. Are you’re interested just because it seems cool and you’re keen to try a trendy thing, or are you committed to respectfully learn its history and philosophy? Are you merely interested in consuming Chinese culture, or are you also interested in contributing to the social issues affecting the people who uphold those traditions?
Regardless of whether it’s food, music, dance, or medicine, appreciation of another culture requires respect and reciprocity.
Author Bio: Sally Yue Lin is a Chinese-Canadian writer and immigrant settler on the traditional territory of the Lekwungen-speaking peoples, in what is currently known as Victoria, British Columbia. She holds a masters degree in public health and after working in health research for a minute, she is now situated at a secular research centre that delves into the many ways our society is entangled with spirituality and religion. Her creative writing connects and revolves around the themes of shifting identities, spiritual folklore, and magical futurisms. Sally’s essays and poems have previously been published in Electric Literature and daikon* zine.