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Archive for May, 2008

The Enigmatic Dr. X

For the first few days after we met Dr. X, he evaded the question when we asked him to tell us about his medical practice. Towards the end of our stay in Dengfeng, after Nan and I have bugged him enough with questions about his practice, he finally sat down for long hours at night to tell us about his practice. I thought these conversations were the jewel of our experiences in Dengfeng since they showed us the folk medicine side of health care in China, a side that is usually unacknowledged by academia but widely utilized by the populace. It turns out Dr. X is a folk healer who treats diseases that conventionally don’t have a cure (yi2 nan2 za2 zheng4). The top ten of these disease include rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, lupus, and psoriasis. Depending on how serious it is, he can cure some of these diseases, and improve the quality of life for patients with other diseases.

~Learning his trade~

He started learning TCM from his father at age 7, who also learned from his father. At age 15, he had already started practicing at the bedside. The medicine that he knows, however, has been learned from various sources, not just his father because what his father knew was limited. He constantly improves his trade by seeking out other doctors who are known to be good at treating certain illnesses and requesting lessons either by trading skills of his own or paying money. This type of learning results in some pretty unique forms of treatment, such as the use of electricity. He was very proud of his skills and said that his medicine can compete with that of any expert in any area. However, he admitted that he is only good at bedside practice and would not be able to teach theory in the classroom for the life of him. (When Nan and I later saw him try to add 7 to 16 with his fingers, we believed him.)

~The transmission of knowledge~

The transmission of knowledge in TCM is a tricky issue since “the Chinese are jealous” (his words) and traditionally believe only in passing on skills and knowledge to sons (since daughters are married into other families and technically become part of other families, thus divulging family secrets). As a result of this extremely selective transmission system, a lot of trade secrets (mi4 fang1) have been lost throughout the years, which is a great shame. When I asked if he has a remedy for this, or if he would himself put down his knowledge in writing, Dr. X quickly laughed off the idea. He said that he would never put down his trade in writing because that makes his trade worthless. He does, however, take students if he deems them to be “good people.” Out of the 20 something students he’s taken, however, not all turned out to be good students. Some left after they have learned some skills and claimed to be better than their teacher, defaming him. The good students, he said, are the ones who call on New Year’s to see how he’s doing.

~What defines a “good doctor”-the ability to diagnose by looking~

Dr. X doesn’t officially open a clinic since he doesn’t hang up a sign. He has a house in Guangzhou where patients come to him by word of mouth. He lives in the house with a western doctor who seems to function in a supporting role. According to Dr. X, whenever he diagnoses a disease, he will refer his patients to get a western imaging test to confirm his diagnosis, more to convince the patient whatever he says is true than to double-check his own diagnosis. He emphasized that his skill lies in “kan bing” (looking at disease), or basically diagnosis. He quoted the saying that if you can diagnose a disease correctly, then it’s already half cured. He claimed that just by looking and taking a pulse, he can tell a great deal about what illness a person has. The way you decide if someone is a good doctor is by not telling the doctor what illness you have, and letting him describe it for you. For example, he claimed that just by looking at one of our common acquaintances, he knows that he has diabetes, and Dr. X excitedly prompted us to ask said person if he indeed does. (Nan commented later that diabetes is one of the easier diseases to diagnose.)

~Selecting patients~

Without advertising or even having an official office, Dr. X already has a ready stream of patients who have heard about him by word of mouth. He said he doesn’t work at a hospital because there are too many patients, and he would feel guilty since he couldn’t possibly treat all of them. Instead, he goes by “yuan2 fen4” (a Chinese concept that has no equivalent in English). If you are able to hear about and find him, he will treat you, with the caveat that you must be a “good person.” He claims he only sees patients who are “good” and told the story of how once a rich man came in a wheelchair pushed by his Indonesian servant, and the old man treated the servant really crudely. When the man talked to Dr. X and begged him to treat him, Dr. X refused, saying he doesn’t know how to treat his disease, and he stuck to his decision no matter how much the man begged. Dr. X claimed that the payment he takes depends on how much money the patient is willing to pay. He could charge a rich man tens of thousands of dollars and a poor man next to nothing. (Previously he had also said that about 90% of his patients were business owners, CEOs, politicians, and other rich people who surely paid him a lot of money. The cynic in me thought it was strange that he doesn’t have as many poor patients who surely would come flocking to him if he does indeed treat them for next to nothing.) At the end of our encounter, he also offered his aid to us when we need it because we are “good people.”

~External qigong~
At the end of the conversation, he offered to demonstrate external qigong on Nan. Asking her to sit with her back towards him, he pulled up her shirt to demonstrate that there was nothing on her back along her spine. He then stood about 4 feet behind her and got into a leg-parted stance. Swinging his arms around firmly left and right, he went through a series of motions that seemed to take a lot of effort, since he started sweating and his face was flushed. Then he shot out his right arm with two fingers extended in a claw-like fashion about a feet away from the nape of Nan’s neck, and slowly and shakily dragged his fingers down through the air. When he finished, he lifted up the back of Nan’s shirt to reveal 2 stripes of red flushed skin about 2 to 3 inches long alongside her upper spine, right under the base of her neck. He explained that this would clear up her meridians (da3 tong1 jing1 mai4) and is good for her health. However, doing this kind of qigong is taxing on the body of the performer, since it takes away from the Original Qi (yuan qi, or zheng qi). He says he only taps into his Original Qi for treating patients about 5 times a year, or otherwise it would be bad for his own health.

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On Being High Profile

Life in Dengfeng was a little difficult to adjust to, and by the end of our week in Dengfeng, Nan and I were secretly glad that we didn’t actually spend 3 months there as we originally planned. Aside from daily inconveniences like food choices being extremely limited and horrible humidity that keeps our clothes wet, here are a few scenarios explaining why.

~On being high profile guests at the hotel~

[On our third day there, Nan and I walk up the stairs of our hotel after a day out.]
Hotel employee No. 1: Oh, you live in room 42 right? We’re going to switch you to room 25 on the second floor because we need to clean the carpets of the fourth floor due to the high humidity.
Nan: Um, when are you doing this? Should we move our stuff down now?
Employee No. 1: Yea, we can help move your suitcases too.
Li-Wen: Oh it’s ok, we’ll get it ourselves.
Employee No. 1: You’ll need to get your room key updated at the front desk.
[Nan and Li-Wen go downstairs immediately to the front desk.]
Employee No. 2: Oh, are you getting your keys changed from 42 to 25?
Li-Wen: Um, yea. [thinks *how the heck does she know already?*]
Employee No. 2: Sure thing. And you’re staying until XX date right?
Li-Wen: Yea… [thinks *wtf*]

~On being conspicuously foreign while pretending not to be~

[In a small, smoke-saturated internet cafe, Li-Wen types away on her computer in Gmail and simultaneously surfs Facebook. She notices the person sitting to her left staring at her screen, very blatantly and conspicuously. This goes on for 5 minutes.]
Dude: Hey what are you looking at?
Li-Wen: [pretends not to hear and hopes he’s not talking to her]
Dude: Hello!
Li-Wen: Oh, huh, yes?
Dude: You type English so quickly. Where did you learn that?
Li-Wen: Oh I study English in college. [not entirely untrue…]
Dude: What are you typing?
Li-Wen: Oh, just emailing a friend. Practicing English, you know.
Dude: Oh.
[silence]
[Li-Wen flips over to New York Times page. Turns monitor over toward Nan, who’s sitting to her right, and pretends to show her something interesting.]
[Dude scoots his chair back and over so he can see the screen better!!! @#&#$!!!]
Li-Wen: Um, can you stop staring at my screen? It makes me feel a little uncomfortable.
Dude: Oh ok. [Looks away for a bit, but continues to glance this way and finally resumes staring]
[Resigned to having a spectator, Li-Wen continues doing her thing, uploading pictures onto Facebook.]
Dude: [on seeing Li-Wen’s profile page] What’s that site? Can I see it? Can you give me the website?
Li-Wen: Umm… Why?
Dude: I want to learn English.
Li-Wen: Oh in that case this site is better. [shows him NYT] It has lots of articles in English that you can read.
Dude: Oh ok… [Looks at it for a bit] Can I get that site with the pictures too (ie. Facebook)?
[After more back and forth, eventually Li-Wen scribbles down the NYT address for him, packs up, and leaves]

A few days into our stay at the hotel, it seemed like every hotel employee knew 1) that we were Harvard students from the US, 2) guests of the mayor, 3) living in XX room, and 4) staying until XX date. While everyone was in general really helpful and nice (such as an employee who let us use their business center computer after hours), it was uncanny walking around and knowing that almost everyone knew a lot about us when we desperately wanted to keep a low profile. And while the stares we got were most certainly out of curiosity and void of malicious intent, it still made us extremely uncomfortable and suspicious (I’m not sure of what). I wonder if the strong desire for privacy is an American trait, as is the sense that any breach of that privacy is a kinda of threat.

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