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”.
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