All of my life, I’ve been told anything “Asian” is better. Cars made by Asian engineers are superior to American, only to be outdone by Germans. Which brings me to Asian technology—cameras, phones, robot humans—it outranks the rest of the globe. Then there’s Asian medicine. My mom always said, “Chinese best. Best medicine. Good for you. Healthy. Natural. Roots and things like that.”
As a kid until I reached college, I had atopic eczema. I inherited it from my father who also suffered through it for years as a child. This form of eczema is common and appears as rashes inside the elbows, on the neck, inside the knees, on the knuckles—wherever you bend your skin regularly. I recall scratching my hands so much around 8 or 9 years-old that my mom forced me to wear mittens to sleep. When that didn’t work, Chinese medicine entered the picture. My mom felt certain it would cure me for life.
The eczema grew worse during certain seasons. I covered up in long-sleeved turtlenecks throughout the year—even in summer—and wore them in every color. But kids could still see it. Sometimes they’d point and whisper: “What’s wrong with your skin?” Others spot it quickly and slowly edge away. I remember playing hide-and-seek in our home with family friends. A girl and I ducked behind a couch. We giggled until she spotted the rash on my neck. Her eyes dimmed, eyebrows furrowed, but she said nothing. She only pulled away and avoided me for the rest of the day.
In my seventh grade year, awkward and long legged, my mother and I visited an herbal doctor near Chinatown. His shop smelled of incense and was full of mysterious dried material in large glass jars, labeled ominously in Chinese characters. My mom spoke in Vietnamese to an old man behind the counter. It didn’t surprise me he understood Vietnamese, too. He looked wise, like a doctor in his office, with neatly combed hair, a white coat, and round wire-rimmed glasses, listening patiently to my mom’s exclamations. “She scratch all day! Never stop! Look!” She pulled down my turtleneck. The doctor peered down from the counter, raised his eyebrows over his glasses, lifted his finger as if to say, “Wait a minute,” and pulled down several jars from the shelves behind him, placing each carefully on the counter. With each jar, I grimaced. It didn’t smell good in there and I can only imagine what he’ll concoct from that weird brown-black dried mushroom-looking thing. And what’s that?! Is that a bird’s head?! Oh whew, he put it back on the shelf. He opened the jars, reached in and sprinkled handfuls of what appeared to be roots and twigs onto a scale. He measured it precisely, still peering over his glasses, before pouring everything onto a clean white sheet of butcher paper. He folded it into a neat square and wrapped the package with twine.
That day, my mom took the man’s instructions to slow boil the ingredients in a crock pot for several hours. The concoction created a liquid so foul, so bitter, and dark, I’m sure it came from somewhere deep in the recesses of the earth. She poured a rice bowl full of the stuff, the smell as potent as it looked.
Now I’ll fast-forward and offer snapshots of memories while attempting to drink the stuff: My mom hovering over me with a stick; my determined face reflected on the surface of the liquid as I refused to drink it; me eventually gagging with each mournful sip; and my father who lamented giving me the ailment while spreading a paste made from the medicine on my arms and legs. I still remember how painfully it stung. Despite these efforts, my skin continued to itch, continued to bleed, and those turtlenecks continued to be worn.
Years later, I had enough and arranged an appointment with a dermatologist on my own who prescribed a common topical cream—it cleared up the eczema overnight.
Thankfully, I grew out of it. But to this day, my mom insists Chinese medicine is best. Western medicine uses chemicals she can’t identify or pronounce. Funny, how the reverse is true for me. I’m just glad I don’t have to wear turtlenecks anymore.