China Diary

by  Cornelia (Nini) Davies

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An English Acupuncture Student in Beijing (extracts)

There are several footnotes at the bottom of this page, that you could find useful. To go to these, just click the relevant hyperlink in the text. To go back to what you have been reading, just click the back button on your browser.

Chapter 1: Getting There and First Days of Class

April 11th 2007
Well, I expected to see plenty of bicycles in Beijing, but I wasn’t ready to encounter one in the departure hall at Heathrow airport’s Terminal 4. I loved it though: all dolled up in yellow fluorescent vinyl, with yellow panniers front and back and an operator in matching jacket. ‘London Bicycle Ambulance’, it proudly declared on the crossbars. Yes, Terminal 4’s departure paramedic ready to cycle into action at a moment’s notice. And I thought it was a great idea… but how did they get it past health and safety?

Flying to China was about as interesting as these long haul flights ever are, except that when I wasn’t sleeping in the early hours, dawn tinged the tops of a the massive Sayan mountain range north east of Urumqi. Quite staggering in area, these mountains seem to stretch over an enormous area, which just slips by, silently, under the aeroplane. To my awareness, so used to comfortable, green, accessible England, I couldn’t really grasp the concept of what I was seeing: except for its barren beauty, like a relief map. While the sun lit up the southern faces, the backs of the mountains were thrown into shadowy relief.… And glaciers, and long, winding rivers, and then a huge, frozen lake around Ulan-Ude.

Now I’m experiencing my first, jet-lagged day in Beijing, fresh off the plane, as they say. I’m settled into the accommodation attached to the Acupuncture Institute. It’s rather like stepping into an oriental version of the 1950’s: no frills, no recent decoration, but most things work… mostly. And tomorrow, they promise me, I’ll have Internet connection. We’ll see. 

A little while ago, I went out, rather unsuccessfully searching for a late lunch, and ended up with some rather delicious, but cold, fried tofu from a supermarket.

While I was out, chancing my luck on the ‘pedestrian crossings’, I saw three chaps in camouflage trousers and orange jackets, incredibly slowly and inefficiently, sweeping up a minute spill of dried earth, using long, rangy, twiggy besom brooms. A fourth colleague, identically dressed, joined in the slow, stately, circular dance, following with a shovel. When I turned round for one last look from the end of the street they were still at it. Marvellous. I expect it’s called full employment.

The part of Beijing I’m in seems to be ‘acupuncture supplies district’; you know, like you get streets that seem to attract restaurants. The two nearest streets are bristling with shops and warehouses advertising acupuncture needles, guasha equipment, moxa etc. I guess it’s to do with the proximity of the Acupuncture Institute, but I’ll find out when I move around out of the immediate district a bit more. 
The moxa in the photo is burning on a needle, to allow the warmth to penetrate deeply. Bizarrely, the protective layer under the patient’s leg is highly combustible newspaper! 

My favourite window items are plastic display point location models of a Friesian cow, with exposed muscles on one side and acupuncture channels on the other. I’m quite used to acupuncture models of people, ears, hands, feet and even horses, but the cow takes the biscuit. I think my reaction is partly due to having been brought up surrounded by Jerseys, Guernseys and Ayreshires, with the nearest Friesians two miles away: in my family we always saw them as the townie upstart cows, but maybe that should suit Beijing... 

Oh, and today I witnessed my first bicycle crash: a woman and boy, both travelling very sedately, inexplicably, and in slow motion, collided and crumpled to the ground in a tangle of wheels. No damage that I could see.

April 12th
I've just had my little room full of people for over an hour, in order to have Internet connection (theoretically, plugging in one cable, but you know computer systems...). There was Mr Liu, the Acupuncture Institute's on-board boffin, saying: ‘nice computer, but no connection’; Dr Ai, in charge of student accommodation, helping to translate and telling me about her stint as an acupuncturist in Bangladesh; two lads from reception, holding cables and volt meters; me, typing my password into the machine at regular intervals and dispensing Marks and Spencer chocolates to those who weren’t too shy to take them (Dr Ai had two, bless her); two cleaners on-stage and off-stage at various times, probably more concerned with the state of my bathroom than with the computer. And all this with jet lag: dear oh dear!

Later I had dinner with a very nice American called Pat, who did the course a while ago. She’s about my age and, like me, doesn’t see any reason to stop learning more all the time. And she’s offered to lend me a bicycle she has spare, so I can join the great clan of Chinese cyclists. Apparently you don’t even need a cycling certificate any more: yes, you DID used to: like the Monty Python Cat License – remember – “Tiddles, being such a happy cat was a piece of cake, the man from the cat detector van said he could pinpoint a purr from 50 yards”?

April 13th 
I woke surprisingly early, and went to the piece of grass a minute away to do my Qi Gong and some yoga. While I was there, several people stopped for varying amounts of time and did a few minutes’ exercise. Even though I am still awake at odd times of night, due to jet lag, I have to get back into some sort of exercise habit.

Today the bicycle arrived: old, but not hugely shabby. It arrived in a sleek black VW with a VIP notice in the front: wonderfully incongruous. My friend Pat (or perhaps ‘ex-Pat’, as she’s been here a while?) borrows the driver and said car when her flat mate is out of town on business. The driver, Jacky, loves to drive: real golden path stuff. When Pat hasn’t asked him to drive her anywhere for a while, he sends her text messages, asking if perhaps she wants to go somewhere, or do some shopping, or perhaps have him run (or, rather, drive) an errand.

I had my first acupuncture treatment since I arrived, to help me get over jet lag, with Dr Liu: no, not Mr Liu the computer engineer, Dr Liu a Director of Studies. When I asked where to find her, I was asked: ‘which Liu?’ ‘Female Liu’, I answered, which worked perfectly.

Later I took Dobbin, the bike, to see Bicycle Repair Man, literally round the corner from the Acupuncture Institute. Pat had told me he would recognise it, as he had sold it again and again, to a succession of students, at a tidy profit each time, until an Iranian took it out of the loop by leaving it in Pat’s care. He did recognise it. ‘I know’, I said in English (damn, I wish I could speak Mandarin!). A few minutes later it squeaked a lot less (brake adjusted) and was easier for me to ride (saddle moved to its lowest position).

This evening I took it for a local area spin – not too far: I need to get used to the combination of bike, traffic and local driving customs. Within minutes of setting off from higgledy-piggledy high-rise-ville, I had turned down a street just over a busy junction and I was suddenly in old China. The street was narrow, with slow people and slow, slow cars and meandering bicycles. All the buildings were one story, and, curiously, all painted a uniform battleship grey. 

As I neared the end of this street, where, once again 21st centaury life awaited, I smelled the unmistakable aroma of lamb kebabs: souvlakia, and immediately I felt I was in Crete – except for one small detail: apart from me, every single person was Chinese. I felt perfectly, utterly safe. In fact, very few people even showed that they noticed me, the only foreigner in their midst.

I am beginning to notice that, however crowded it is, the energy of the people is always very peaceful and quiet. When I observed it last night, I wondered if it is because most Chinese people at some time do some centering martial art: probably Qi Gong or Tai Chi. It must have a long term effect on the centeredness of their energy that also has a collective result. Which makes you wonder how the harmony of the whole world would be if everyone took some time for these things… or their own version.

April 14th 
I had to write my ‘speech’ for tomorrow’s opening ceremony. Wang Yue, the helpful organiser and translator in the office, asked me to do this, as an incoming student. I went to the office and typed it on her computer, as she wanted to be sure she could print it and translate it ahead. But she was out. Doris, who works at the next desk, told me to go ahead and type it into Wang Yue’s computer, anyway. So I started to, except that the machine was set up for Chinese, so everything I wrote emerged in Chinese characters after a couple of key strokes… interesting, but strange. Amidst laughter, Doris sorted it: As most of the instruction icons are in Chinese, I was a bit stuck for sorting it myself!

This afternoon I took Dobbin (the bike) out for his first proper spin. I wanted to visit the Temple of the White Cloud the other side of Beijing, which caused Doris and the others in the office to grin at me and say: “we want you back for tomorrow” (a comment on Beijing traffic, apparently). Well, the traffic was fine. OK, it was slightly challenging at the intersections of major roads, of which there are many (capital city, 12 million inhabitants… ), but I stayed with the cycle pack, and we all crossed together.

The temple is beautiful and peaceful, and was a very appropriate place for me to centre myself before the course. It’s a temple compound, with many small. Daoist shrines within, so is a very suitable place for an acupuncturist. I spent two gloriously peaceful hours there, and realised just how much it’s OK being here on my own.

Later, most of the other students were going out on a bonding exercise to a ‘special bar’. I guess I didn’t look too impressed, because the Swiss woman, Tamara, who was sort of insisting I go, said: “yes, I don’t like smoky pubs either, so we’ll just spend a short time and come home”. So I agreed. And it was smoky, and noisy and bizarre: why would a Western European band go to Beijing and play cover versions of Dire Straits and Santana numbers in a large, Western style pub???? Yep… it was an experience, and yep: we went home early (phew!).

April 15th
Today was the much-awaited opening ceremony for the course. These things are done according to a certain formula, with prestige being very important. The doctors and professors made speeches, welcoming us and extolling our virtues and their virtues. All very correct. And then I was called on to make my speech. (Sorry? Just me?) Yes, apparently my opening introduction that I’d written for Wang Yue to translate was not just one of the student introductions; it was the speech from the representative student. Ah! Of course! In China everyone must have their say in the right place, so as all the directors and doctors etc. had made speeches, it was only correct that one of the students should, too.

So I made my speech, in bite-sized pieces, and Wang Yue translated each section. Then everyone politely applauded. Then we went to the restaurant attached to the Institute and had the welcome banquet. All very friendly, with the professors and translators scattered amongst us. Talking to Dr Huo, the deputy director who had given the main welcoming speech, Tamara said in surprise: “Oh, so you speak English. Then why didn’t you give your speech in English?” “Because we are in China, so some things must be done in Chinese”, said his translator, quick as a flash. “Ah!” we all said, understanding the importance of this… 

I like China. This is most definitely not a third world country, something I think we tend to forget. Things are certainly different here, and everything isn’t ‘bling’, as it sometimes is in the West, but I don’t have a problem with that. Actually, if it were ‘bling’, it would have to be continually cleaned or replaced, as one thing that seems certain here is the dust. It blows in from the Gobi Dessert, which is pretty inescapable. In my first diary entry, I teasingly mentioned the sweeping, and sweeping is, indeed, a big issue here: an unending issue. It’s DUSTY!

The people here seem very civilised, and while self contained, very human. I don’t feel at all hassled, but when I choose to make contact with people, the response is genuine.

Today contained many delightful moments: some very simple pieces of human interaction: like the girl who unwisely tried to cross a busy intersection, against the traffic at the same moment that I tried to do the same, from the opposite side of the road. We both stopped in our tracks and simultaneously noticed each other as a mirror, and joyfully laughed at each other as a big lorry passed. We’re all the same really, when it comes to it… 

April 16th
I decided not to go to the local lamasery, because there were hoards of coaches outside the gate. I went later to the Ditan Park, which contained fairly interesting buildings, but not nature as I would recognise it. I sat and read my acupuncture textbook there, which was my plan, anyway: study with fresh air.
On the way there I rode past the lamasery again, and was struck by the amount of fragrant incense wafting over the high walls… tempting. Those busloads of tourists must have been working hard to please the gods. Will try to get there on a less busy day.

Chapter 2: 1st Day of Class

April 17th

Young Dr Wang, the teacher in this photo has written this calligraphy on the board for us. It’s a traditional Chinese poem on the use of, moxa, which Chinese medical students learn. Luckily we had a translator!

Well, it's started.

As I had been warned, it is rote learning: the teachers don't even like questions, because it alters their schedule, so you just have to check your book later! Different to what I’ve heard of the Reading acupuncture college’s first sessions: (‘are you visual, tactile, auditory, kinaesthetic, left brain, right brain etc –and how can we help you to learn better?’).

But you know what? I think I've understood something about excess and deficiency, which are two important principals in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and which I never ‘got’ by osmosis. Today we raced in with yin/yang theory1 in the morning and the five  elements2 in the afternoon. Having these basic theories of TCM described, ‘at source’ in China, was interesting, but pretty much unexplained, just presented, really... and I'm so glad I had some prior knowledge of the five elements. I haven't dared ask how the people who had no previous experience of Chinese medicine got on.

We are told to learn certain things by heart tonight: “put them in your computer” says Wang our interpreter, pointing at her head. And she points out that tomorrow we will have even more to learn, so we must do it today. Most people in the class are doctors, so I guess that learning by remembering is very familiar to them. I like to learn by understanding: hope I can keep up as time goes on and I am on decreasingly familiar territory. I think that very soon my head will be very full.

Professor Liu described one particular part of five element theory, the Ke Cycle, as the interacting of one element on another. Our interpreter paused to tell us that Americans prefer to call this action conquering, which she further explained thus: “the Americans like conquering”... ''yes” we said, dissolving into hysterics. One or two of the Iranian students had to have their colleagues translate, and then they, too, dissolved: a little too close to home for them, though, I think.

I'm trying to get the accommodation people to take the telly out of my room, as are some of the other students. I think the staff are puzzled as to why on earth we don't want to avail ourselves of extra Mandarin practice/ entertainment. Strange lot, aren't we?

Some of my Germanic colleagues are dead set on organizing what they consider to be edible breakfasts, including German bread and coffee. I’m happy to have found Chinese millet porridge available in the canteen – a sort of grainy gruel: this suits me down to the ground. However, when my neighbour, Tamara, brings German bread into my room for me to try, I weaken and accept some, and it’s delicious: moist, pale brown and (this really tips the balance for me) it contains pumpkin seeds. Though I have developed a taste for the Chinese steamed buns, I have to admit that I would like more of this stuff, too.

My German colleagues, by the way call the delicious millet gruel ‘schlime’. I don’t think they’ll be joining me for breakfast.

First study group with other students tonight: a lively, interesting time.

April 18th
Today we start the Zang Fu organs: the explanation of how the internal organs function according to Chinese medicine. This is an interesting time for me. Because I already have training in five element acupuncture, quite a bit of what is presented is familiar to me, but because I don’t have a TCM training, I have to stay completely alert, in order not to miss new information that will be vital to my clinical training and diagnosis according to the principals of TCM. Some of the material has a different emphasis and connectivity to that of the Leamington approach, so I have to watch for that, too. 

It’s clear that, though this is a course particularly for foreign doctors and other health care workers who have no prior knowledge of TCM, there are many things that it just doesn’t occur to Professor Wei Lixin to explain, as they are so obvious to her. However, not only is she an extremely pleasant young woman, but also she and her interpreter are open to questions, unlike yesterday’s team. Great.

Every time we cover a new organ, Thomas, a German medical student asks for the Chinese name for it. After lunch, when we have covered four of the Zang (yin) organs, I congratulate him on his tenacity and we jokingly make a bet about whether he will have to keep asking as each new organ is presented. He thinks they’ll have got the hang of it by now, but I’m convinced that this bit isn’t in the notes, and accommodating though Dr Wei is, I don’t think she’ll automatically mention it. Shortly after we begin the functions of the Lung, I find myself wishing I’d put money on it… 

After today’s classes I went out to find some supper and get a bit of… er… air. Beijing is having its biggest dust storm for 6 years, but until today I had thought it was no big deal. I was alerted to something different when I went out of the college gates and noticed the normally robust pineapple woman (who two days ago had patiently taught me to count to 5 in Mandarin) sitting on the pavement with her collar over her mouth. Pretty soon I had given in and adopted the ‘Lone Ranger look’, with my scarf over my mouth. 

Apparently, in the last few days several tons of sand has blown to Beijing from the Gobi Dessert. My question is where is it all going to go in the end? A bit of sweeping here and there is hardly going to move it out of the city. My friend Pat has a theory that perhaps they’ll make it into a giant sand dune and turn it into a theme park… 

My route to supper and back was dotted with people accommodating themselves to the dust in varying ways: Lone Rangers like me, people in medical masks, the full-facial sheer scarf (a very chic option), and just plain old squinting (a lot of that).
Added to the dust storm, for the last few days, we’ve had cottony-type seed clusters falling out of the sky, like the most gossamer snow.

Chapter 3: Clinical Observation Begins

April 24th 
Lucky me. Because I was not in Group 1, and therefore didn’t have that extra half hour in bed, I got to the garden to do my pre-breakfast Qi Gong earlier than I had last week, and all of a sudden the Chinese vision I had heard about for so many years materialised before my eyes: people doing Tai Chi, Qi Gong and other exercise in the early morning in a park. Hooray!

Some people were alone, like me; some were in groups. While I did my Qi Gong, a little way away a couple of chaps did some Tai Chi, and a group of middle aged Chinese ladies did Sword Form Tai Chi followed by what looked like a semi-acrobatic dance routine, waving red fans, all to the accompaniment of traditional music on their rather tinny ghetto blaster.

After breakfast came the moment we have all been waiting for: the first day of clinical observation. At the hospital, a pile of standard issue white coats awaited us. My little clinical group: Britta, Axel, Baihe and I looked great. Baihe looked very chic in her own white coat. The rest of us looked… authentic: in white coats that were a little too large and a little creased, just like all the pictures of Chinese doctors I have ever seen! 

As I posed for a group photo, I realised how very excited I was. For twenty-five years, I have been involved in Chinese Medicine in one way or another, and now, for the first time I was about to witness it, live in a mainstream Chinese hospital: not fringe, not freaky, just normal.

We were assigned to follow Professor X in the acupuncture department, as he saw an apparently endless round of people. He would sit at his desk for the diagnosis of a new patient, ask questions, take pulses, look at their tongue, and then write an acupuncture point or herb prescription. All the time, doctor and patient would be surrounded by a group of interested bystanders: other doctors, Chinese medical students, friends and family, other patients waiting, and, probably worst of all, us foreign students (can you imagine?).

I must say, the patients bore all of this very stoically: it was normal for them. However, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for one or two in particular, for whom the questioning got quite personal at times. My heart went out to one softly spoken young woman who was suffering from tiredness, and who also had dysmenorrhoea and chronic constipation. With the large, attentive audience and our interpreter following with an English version of her story, to my Western outlook it all seemed rather invasive.

In between these diagnostic sessions, Professor X would go around the clinic and put needles in half a dozen patients who had already been diagnosed or were there for follow up treatments. Each doctor clearly has his or her own style, and the professor seems to favour using lots of back points with deep needling, cups and electro-stimulation.

On several patients he used Jia Ji points, which are located inside the bladder meridian on the back. Apparently he likes to use these points instead of the back shu points because they are not directly over organs, and therefore he can needle deeper. And, boy, did he needle deeper… I’m not certain I would ever dare to needle that deeply. Apart from my having been taught a very gentle acupuncture tradition, and apart from the litigious nature of Western society, they just looked so deep. He was using 3-inch needles, up to the hilt (yes, I do mean that: the hilt). We’ll see how I feel in a couple of months!

Not everyone got this very strong back treatment, and I was surprised that one woman who was suffering from numb hands just had one point on each arm (Pericardium 6) needled: nothing else – the perfect, elegant one needle treatment we were taught about at college? Whatever his reasons, it was certainly a contrast to some of the heavy-duty treatments for the back pain/sciatica group.
I hope that as time goes on we’ll get more explanation of what the differential diagnosis is for different patients, but for today, it was stimulating enough: the two and a half hours just flew by.

Chapter 4: Calligraphy in the Park, Good Clinical Experience and the Language Issue

June 12th
In the park this evening, I saw a man writing beautiful calligraphy on the slabs in a paved area, using a huge brush, dipped in water. The hairs of the brush were about 8 inches long, and in a bunch about 4 or 5 inches in diameter, and the handle was long enough that he could use the whole thing easily in a standing position, slightly bending. This was not a Rolf Harris, emulsion paint, rectangular brush, but proper calligraphy brush shape, elegant, and with an enormous water carrying capacity.

As he moved on down the pavement, presumably writing a traditional poem or text, the characters a few lines back dried and faded from view. This was artistry of true impermanence: here and flowing, lasting for maybe ten or fifteen minutes and then gone. Perhaps the beginning of the stanza was gone before the end was reached - I don’t know. I’ve often admired the artistry and impermanence of the work of pavement artists who work in chalk, only to have their work fade or wash out within hours or days, but this was more transitory, even, than that.

With his big, water-holding brush, the artist was able to use blobs and strokes: delicate, thin lines and fat, satisfying strong lines. It was perfect: a calligraphy demonstration with no wastage of paper or ink. He had most likely scooped the water out of the lake and into the recycled plastic bottle with the top cut off, which he was using as his water container. Exquisite: no stain on the planet, no throwaway, and a temporary addition of grace and beauty, leaving a permanent memory for me, at least, and probably for some others.

A slightly younger man stood watching him, clutching a wad of calligraphy texts, I think. His student? Possibly.

I think this may have been the original ‘poetry in motion’: for which the term was coined.

June 13th

At our new hospital placement, Dr Zhang seems to have a very clear strategy for us. Every time we have more information from class, she seems to mirror it in the clinic. Today, being a ward round day, she started the morning with us in a private patient’s room, and stood by the bed discussing the presenting symptom (facial paralysis) and the treatment strategy. On to this she then built discussion of the patient’s chronic illness (diabetes) and her treatment principals for this. She also discussed the tongue, pulses and syndromes, and after she completed all the needling, she explained all the components of the treatment, separately and with crossovers. She doesn’t always have time for this sort of detail, but when she does she gives it all she’s got.

We’re about two thirds of the way through the course now, and while I very much want to get home; I’m already viewing things from the perspective of time running out. I have just over four weeks to get the most out of the classroom understanding of treatment principals and the clinical experience. Will I manage to put enough of it together in time?

June 14th
For several days we had hot summer, often humid, and often into the 30’s– lovely. Then yesterday morning it was cold enough to wear jeans again. Later on we had impressive thunder and rain. Today it’s nice and sunny and warm again. “Do you know why?” Tanja asked me. “Because yesterday the Chinese government made it rain. If it is cloudy for five days the government puts chemicals in the clouds to make it rain, and they did that yesterday.” We both assume that this means the chemicals then fall on us all in Beijing.

Today in the clinic I did some more cupping practice.  This was very useful, as in this clinic they mostly use moving cups, whereas at home I am used to using static cups. A Chinese hospital doctor who is currently here learning skills by observing Dr Zhang was in the cupping room with me, and Karim, a Basque acupuncturist who is here for several months observing, was able to explain quite a lot in English. 

Chapter 5: Completion

July 16th
The Iranians and half the German group left this morning, and we ‘survivors’ were very sad. Angela and I leave early tomorrow and Baihe leaves for Hong Kong on Tuesday. Petra is required to stay another three weeks to complete her clinical hours, as she had to arrive three weeks late because of her final medical exams in Germany. Stefan is here for another two months’ study.

Late in the morning, Stefan dropped into my room, and said, in his precise, non-emotional, psychiatrist manner: “Am I right in thinking that everyone here is in a sub-depressive state?” “Yes”, I said, knowing that he wouldn’t feel this emotion, “that’s right, we’re feeling sad that the others have left.” “I thought so”, he said, “I feel sad that the group has broken up, too”. I smiled a little… so, Stefan does experience sadness, after all.

I went to the Temple of the White Cloud alone to say good-bye to the Daoist Gods. This is where I came in. This time I managed to find the ancient engraving of the internal workings of the human body, according to Daoist philosophy. Before I came to China I had intended to look out for this seminal engraving. Last time I was here, I hadn’t located it, hidden away in a lovely inner courtyard at the back of the temple. I was glad of my accidentally booked extra day, just for this (according to my schedule, the class was due to finish a day later than it actually did). In terms of Chinese medicine, this engraving is a classic.

Yesterday evening, I had experienced a different sort of completion, as my room filled with people dealing with things on my computer. At the start, on my second jet-lagged day, do you remember, I had my room full of Chinese people trying to connect the Internet for me? Then I had felt newly arrived, and alone, and wondered what the three and a half months ahead of me would bring.

Yesterday evening, the people filling the room were my classmates and good friends. It was our last chance to upload and download things to and from each other’s computers, and there was a regular traffic in the corridors and rooms.

And every now and then someone would wander in to find out when we would be ready to eat. I’m signing off now, to finish my packing… 

July 17th
I’m on the aeroplane home, discovering first hand how difficult it is to use a laptop in an economy cabin with the seat in front in reclining position.

Angela and I went to the airport together this morning. As we queued for our respective check-in procedures, Angela excitedly found herself surrounded by people speaking fast and fluent Spanish: she’s often felt very isolated from her own language during the three months here, but she’s been very stoical about it and has worked hard to improve her English. Before she booked the course, the college promised her a Spanish translator throughout, but one never materialised, and she’s coped extremely well.

We went to have a drink in a typical airport café, which gave a choice of Chinese or Western food, and Angela wickedly asked me if I wanted to take my last chance for Chinese food (I think you can guess my answer). Then it was my turn to wickedly offer to watch her bags so that she could have a final experience of a Chinese loo, which, strangely, she declined. Instead, she watched my bag while I went in, and took a random choice of Eastern or Western style cubicle. A lovely, elderly Chinese woman came in and opening a door, made a slight, distressed noise at the sight of the Western-style loo behind it. She tried the next one, and, finding it was also Western style, resigned herself to go in, until I pointed out a squat loo I’d noticed as I walked past. She mimed squatting, in a questioning way. “Duai”, I said, using my Chinese vocabulary nearly to its limit. She pushed the door open and thanked me appreciatively. We all have our foibles: they’re just different ones.

Leaving Angela disappearing through her departure gate – my last farewell – I went to my own departure gate, knowing that my time of Englishness was about to come full circle as I joined the very British institution of a British Airways flight, and now here I am on the plane.

The initial cabin announcement was made by the senior stewardess, in beautifully spoken, upper class English: fluent, with full vocabulary: quite a shock to my pidgin-English imbued system. But now, strangely, I am sitting in a section of the aeroplane, surrounded by many jolly Spanish people. The ones next to me don’t speak English, and even our local friendly neighbourhood steward is a young Spanish man. Behind me, a couple of guys are chatting away loudly in Chinese, sprinkled with the now familiar words: “nai ga” and “ji ga” (roughly: “um… this… that… here… there”). The ‘back to England’ feeling isn’t appearing as fast as I’d expected!

I broke my journey back to Devon at my acupuncturist friend, Jane Robinson’s house, where we shared Chinese green tea on her beautiful, green, English lawn, outside her classically, golden-coloured stone Somerset farmhouse. Jane spread a rug on the lawn for us to sit on, but before I could do that, I needed to do something really important: I needed to roll my whole body on her lush lawn, and smell English earth under my nose. The sweet smell of my native ground helped me to feel more connected after a long flight from a different time-zone: from humid, beautiful, infuriating, crowded, friendly, noisy, fascinating, lovable Beijing.

Undoubtedly I will be a changed person from my journey. I can sense some of that change already, but as yet, much of it is a mystery to me. Time will tell, and the integration process will be gradual.

At last the brave traveler returns:
For now, foreign countries she  spurns.
She’s no Marco Polo,
For sure, that’s a no-no,
But, little by little, she learns.

Footnotes

Back shu points: these are particular acupuncture points located about an inch and a half away from the spine. They are used to strongly affect certain of the body organs or functions. In the West they tend to be used in a fairly conservative way, whereas in China they are used quite frequently.

Cupping is a useful technique, using glass ‘cups’ to draw ‘stagnant’ energy out of a patient. Cupping is particularly used on the back and shoulders. Using special glass ‘cups’ or ‘cupping jars’, the practitioner creates a vacuum in the cup, using a lighted swab, which is removed before the cup is placed on the patient’s back, shoulder, or joint.

The treatment can involve static cups, when a formation of cups are left in place for ten to twenty minutes, or moving cups, when the practitioner uses massage oil under the cup and slides it in a particular pattern.

Daoist. Daoism is the philosophy of following ‘the Dao’, or ‘the way’. Some see it as a religion, though it is more like a way of life, in which one attempts to follow the middle way and keep one’s life centred: not too extreme in any way. A Daoist tries to be moderate in all things, and may, for instance, spend some time each day meditating or practicing a martial art, but may also spend time tending their garden, or drinking a pleasant glass of rice wine on the terrace with his or her spouse while admiring the evening light. Traditionally, it is not unusual for Daoists to be scholars or artists, as well as philosophers, and to spend time perfecting the art of calligraphy or traditional painting; or they might spend time perfecting their skills in medicine or some other philosophical and useful science.

Whereas the learning techniques of Confucianism, another well-known ancient Chinese school of thought, tend to be didactic, Daoism is more concerned with the question and answer: the master and pupil will engage in a philosophical and questioning discussion.

Even though Daoism can be seen as a philosophy rather than a dogmatic religion, a Daoist temple contains shrines, with images of deities. These deities represent ideas or thoughts to which we can aspire, and are not the same as a Christian or Jewish ‘God’.

Five Element theory is another traditional Chinese way of assessing and describing the universe. These elements are more or less the same as the Western four elements, with the addition of the wood element (growing things). The five elements are: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. The Chinese ‘metal’ equates to the Western ‘air’ element. In addition to a philosophical outlook, the interrelationship of these five elements is used to understand aspects of the functions of the human body. It was acupuncture according to the five element philosophy that I first learned twenty–five years ago. In modern TCM, the five element theory is paid very little attention.

Golden Path is a term used by Chinese Face Reading teacher, Lillian Bridges, to describe the correct path for someone, i.e. when they do work that suits them so perfectly that it feeds and creates more kidney energy (which Chinese medicine sees as the battery power of the body), thus causing them to become healthier as they do their work, rather than being depleted by it.

Guasha: this is a technique similar to massage, but using a simple hand-held tool. In this case the tool might be made of horn or stiff leather or plastic, and it is used by the practitioner to massage the muscle layer of the patient. Oil is used to help the guasha tool slide easily but firmly.

Meridian: acupuncture works on the principal that there are many acupuncture ‘points’ on the body, and that these points are arranged in lines, known as meridians or channels. During treatment, the acupuncturist inserts needles, which are as fine as hairs, into these acupuncture points to clear ‘blocks’ and energise the system. In this particular reference, the meridian mentioned is the bladder meridian, one of twelve major meridians that are mainly named after the major organs and functions they represent.

Moxa is a dried, shredded herb. It is often used in conjunction with acupuncture to warm certain areas on a patient. To achieve this, the practitioner sets light to it under controlled conditions, and it creates warmth, either directly or indirectly, via an acupuncture needle. This technique is called ‘moxibustion’.

Qi Gong and Tai Chi are traditional Chinese exercise forms, practised by many people daily. Each type works with an understanding of the body’s energy network to help move restrictions and bring more life force and flexibility to the people who practise it.

TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) is the term routinely used to describe the type of acupuncture, widely used in China and increasingly in the West, which uses a thorough system of differential diagnosis.

Threading: this is a technique in which one, very long acupuncture needle is used to pierce several points on the same meridian at once. The needle enters the skin obliquely and is moved under the skin to join the points. This technique is not so frequently used in the West.

Yin and yang are what Chinese philosophy sees as the basic components behind all of life. Yin and yang are seen as complementary opposites: male/female; day/night; energy/substance; particle/wave etc. This theory runs through the whole of the Chinese understanding of life, including medicine. For instance, each of the organs is described as being predominantly yin or yang and has its balancing counterpart. E.g. the Spleen meridian is seen as yin (female and inward), and its counterpart is the Stomach, which is seen as yang (male and outward).

© Cornelia Davies 2006

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