I walk into the tiny shop front, the longest wall lined with a mahogany case filled with pot after pot of herbal medicine. I smile politely and half-bow as a sign of respect, slightly hesitant. What is this going to be like? Do I even trust him? He’s Chinese, and I’m very clearly Taiwanese with my accent. And I look foreign. The doctor looks at me, trying to judge me, and offers me a greeting in broken English. I immediately start in Mandarin, hoping that he will understand me with my accent. Will he get me? Does he only speak a dialect? Surely not. Surely he speaks Mandarin too. Oh my god. What if he asks me about something I don’t know the words to? How do you say constipated again? They always ask about that.
I immediately start explaining my ailments, half questioning myself. How do I say uncomfortable again? Is there a Chinese-Mandarin alternative way to say it that I don’t know about? A lady, whom I presume to be his wife, appears from the back room and starts helping me explain, without any introduction, using big words I don’t quite understand. He is going to help me, I know, so I answer questions with a dry throat. Answering his short, curt questions. ‘Is it white or yellow?’ ‘When does it happen most often?’ I stumble over the questions, they are coming in hard and fast. The wife diagnoses me immediately, and tells her husband, possibly in a dialect or in a mumble, what’s wrong with me. He hands me a clipboard and asks me to fill out my details, in English. I get to sit down in the tiny consultation area, just off the entrance, separated by a looming column. There’s a tall bed-side table pushed in a corner with two chairs around it, and a soft, triangular pad/cushion on it. I fill the form out, in English (no one wants to read my child like Chinese and I’m here registered as Dutch anyway), andI hand it back to him. I know he’s trying to read what I wrote, but he’s clearly struggling, so he sits down on the chair on the other side of the table and waves his hand to indicate he wants my wrist. Ah, a familiar action, I know how to deal with this. I place my wrist on the pillow on the table, and he starts feeling for a pulse. It always baffled me, they just gently place their index and middle finger on my pulse, and voila, they can tell what’s wrong. I can’t even feel my own pulse from the light pressure they put on my wrist.
‘Do you sleep well?’ ‘Not really’. Relief starts to flood through me. He clearly can feel what’s wrong with me, he’s starting to get it. ‘And what about pressure?’ Pressure? What, like, in my head? In my life? ‘Not so much’, I shrug non-committedly. I might be having an existential crisis, but he’s definitely not going to help me with that. He writes down some notes. I can tell by the writing it’s herbs he’s going to mix together for me. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see his wife is pulling small white pots off the cupboards already. She knows what he’s going to use, and he wasn’t even halfway done yet. He takes his fingers off my wrist and gestures for the other one, with a slight grunt. I oblige. I start getting a bit nervous. I wonder how much this is going to cost. I wonder if he’s going to recommend acu- ‘Honestly, the best way to solve this situation quickly is through acupuncture’. There it is! The comment I’ve been waiting for. ‘Oh, but that’s very scary’. I have to play the young/scared card. Maybe even blame the parents… we’ll see how far they push. ‘Yes but that’s the best way to get better quickly. Once or twice a week, for three weeks, and that’s £40 each time.’ ‘That’s very expensive. The doctor must know that I don’t make very much money.’ ‘Ok, well, once a week then.’ I’m puzzled. How can you tell me one thing, and then another. ‘I’d rather take the medicine. I know that it works well, I’ve seen herbal medicine doctors until I was in high school’. The wife, having heard me, decides to give me her two cents, ‘But it’s the only way to get better quicker, it really doesn’t hurt. It’s the best for your blood flow’. I nod eagerly, in agreement, trying to ease the situation. I went from being confident that he was going to prescribe the right medicine to feeling fleeced. ‘How much is the herbal medicine?’ I ask. ‘It’s £50, but that only lasts two weeks’ the doctor replies. I gulp. Damn. That’s a whole lotta dough. Back home I’m used to paying no more than £3 for 10 days. Universal health care, baby. ‘Well, I think I’ll stick to the herbal medicine. It’s what I know, and then I’ll have to ask my mother’s permission to do the acupuncture. She’ll want to know first’. Mentally, I take a deep breath. Crisis averted. It’s all ‘mom’s fault’. ‘Okay, sit here we will prepare the medicine.’ He gets up and brings his diagnosis over to his wife. She starts taking back pots to put on the shelf, and replacing them with others. At least they’re trying to be accurate… right? There’s an awkward silence as I scramble to put on my coat, trying to calculate how much cash I have on me. Its definitely not £50. They are weighing the powders on a kitchen scale, throwing everything together with practiced efficiency. I wait. There’s no noise but plastic hitting plastic, of pots closing and powders mixing together. I hate this. I feel stupid now for saying no to the doctor. You don’t ever defy doctors orders. Then, I get summoned up to the reception desk again. I pull out my wallet. Another mental sigh. My mother is going to kill me. £50 on a pot of medicine?
He presents me with the pot, and then four other boxes of what I can only imagine to be pills. Since when did herbal medicine doctors believe in pills? I’ve never had them. At least, if that’s all together fifty quid then I can deal with that, that’s acceptable. ‘So, this box you take twice a day. You see this spoon? Two and a half of these. In the morning and at night. And then these pills, these are a chi-calming pill. These you take three times a day. Eight of them, three times a day.’ EIGHT PILLS WHAT ARE YOU MENTAL? ‘And these, these are antibacterial. These are twice a day as well, and you only take two.’ ‘Okay.’ I say quietly. I don’t know if I should believe him or if I should just run… that would not be very respectful. He’s clearly a doctor for a reason. Clearly, this should be fine. He starts writing numbers on the paper he was diagnosing me with. His wife starts trying to convince me of acupuncture again, ‘Why don’t you try it at least once? Then you’ll know it doesn’t hurt, and you’ll see the benefits.’ Before I can answer, I hear, ‘So together that’s £92’. I pause for a second. What? My mom is most definitely going to kill me, I shouldn’t even bother trying to buy this stuff. I feel like I’m having an out of body experience now. I’m watching myself pull out my card from my wallet, and asking for a card machine. I’m inputting my code, and the next thing I remember, I’m walking out the shop, my tear ducts full. I vaguely recall the doctor saying ‘no spicy food and no seafood, that inflames your chi’. How do they make you feel like such idiots? How do I feel scammed? I should feel relief and happiness that I get access to the same kind of medication I would at home, welcome globalization and all of that.
But this just reminds me of most doctor experiences I’ve had. They aren’t there to make you feel good, they are here to balance your chi. Hell, one of the doctors that I used to see would be smoking a cigarette while feeling my pulse! They tell you what to eat, what not to eat, what you shouldn’t be doing. And you know what, you’ll follow it because it works!!
I’m 10 days into my medicine now, and so far, so good. I sometimes want to cry about how gross the medicine tastes but as Mary Poppins told me once, a spoonful of sugar … Which is, in my case, a spoonful of honey… Makes everything easier!!