Chinese belly button voodoo

Took kid #2 to the local hospital because of some stubborn tummy trouble, and came home with some Chinese medicine:
Of course herbal belly button plugs are a thing:
I hope we’re doing this right:
bellybutton_voodoo1 According to my Weixin pengyous, we should be OK. (And to be fair, China’s not the only place that comes up with novel health remedies.)

Imagine this in the average North American family restaurant

Imagine this, from the front counter of a neighbourhood restaurant, suddenly appearing one night in an average North American restaurant:
Perhaps, you can’t believe your eyes. But it’s exactly what it looks like: a full set of some male animal’s genitalia (seal, I’m guessing) soaking with gÇ’uqǐ berries and some other, unidentified ingredients in báijiÇ”, China’s infamously impression-leaving hard liquor.

These health tonics in glass barrels on restaurant counters are pretty common in our area. For a fuller description, see:

Curiosity + China = way more than I bargained for

Drink this for your yang

Welcome to China! Here’s your (surprise!) free fire-cupping!

We got more than we asked for on the grandma-&-granddaughter foot massage outing when they decided to throw in a free firecupping… without telling us first.

Surprise free firecupping!
We didn’t see this coming…

More about fire-cupping:

Chinese-as-a-Second-Language, Episode 6: Coffee enemas

Maybe you think writing about coffee enemas is… in poor taste. Well, this isn’t about coffee enemas; it’s about the crazy stuff that floats through our daily conversations in China and the deliciously odd experience of encountering it in a second language. Like last week’s little exchange:

“Hey, Dajiang! I sent you a Weixin message for Jessica, to help her recovery.” (Jessica recently had surgery, and our Chinese friends have been super supportive.)

“Oh, yeah? What is it?”

“It’s about a treatment that’s really popular right now: coffee guàncháng. It’s helping lots of cancer patients recover.”

(I’ve never heard the word guàncháng before, so I just ignore it. You can usually get through a conversation without understanding every single word.) “Ha, if I tell Jessica she has to drink more coffee to get better she’ll be very happy.”

“No, Dajiang. It’s coffee *guàncháng*.”

I think it’s interesting how our brains handle this kind of Chinese-as-a-language situation. All within a split-second, your brain realizes that this word does matter and searches out your best guess from within the Chinese you have. Our brains are wondrously quick and powerful, but not foolproof (as I’m about to discover).

Context is extra important in Chinese, with its relatively small number of syllables and incredible number of homophones. Every syllable is a character, and a single word can be one or more syllables (“big” 大 + “learn” å­¦ = university 大学). Guàn-cháng is two Chinese syllables, which my brain takes one at a time, starting with the most familiar:

  1. Cháng is easy. We’re talking about health so I assume it’s the cháng for intestines è‚ , a character we see all the time in the market and on restaurant menus, rather than the cháng for “often” 常, “long” é•¿, “taste” 尝, “big flat open space” 场 or the surname 常.
  2. Guàn — Ok, medical and health topic, something about intestines, medicine that you don’t drink… guàn guàn guàn… the only guàn that comes to mind is this thing we occasionally ate for lunch in Tianjin called jÄ«dàn guànbǐng, not very much like an oily Chinese egg McMuffin, where they slice open one side of the biscuit and crack an egg into it before frying it. I’d never paid attention to the literal meaning of the name: egg (jÄ«dàn) + enclose? + Chinese biscuit (bǐng).

So the train of thought goes like this:

  1. “cháng”
  2. + medical treatment context
  3. = intestines.
  4. “guàn”
  5. jīdàn guànbǐng?
  6. “egg” + “enclosed”? + “biscuit”
  7. “guàn-cháng” = “enclose” + “intestines”
  8. + medicine association
  9. = “enclose” in the “intestines”?
  10. = …suppository?
  11. “kāfÄ“i guàncháng” = “coffee suppository”?

So I’m going with coffee suppositories and the conversation doesn’t miss a beat; that whole thought process takes just a split second. But I do whip out my Pleco dictionary as we’re talking to make sure. And according to Pleco, indispensable lifeline of Chinese language students everywhere, guàncháng = enema. (Turns out guàn means “pour” or “irrigate”, not “enclose”; “egg-poured biscuit” makes more sense, too). So we’re talking about coffee enemas — “coffee-poured intestines” — not coffee suppositories. Or maybe I should think of it as “coffee-irrigated intestines”? This conversation just keeps getting better and better.

“You believe it?”

“Yeah, look! It’s not just in Hunan province — that’s just the TV station that aired the program. Lots of places are doing this!”

“Well thanks! I’ll definitely tell her!”

If you’re curious about the health benefits of multiple daily coffee enemas aka 咖啡灌肠, you can drop this link‘s text into Google translate.

You can also browse lots more Chinese health, language learning and cross-cultural fun:

P.S. — Just to be fair, this is a China blog so I write about China stuff. If I were writing a North America blog, I could mention the trendy North American health advice I received last year from an American friend who e-mailed me suggesting I use garlic as a suppository to help beat a lingering cold.

P.P.S. — For the good kind of North American health advice, see Wellness With Joanna (though as far as I know, she has not yet commented on garlic or coffee as suppositories or enemas).

Don’t eat that! You’ll get ‘wind’ in your ‘stomach’!

So I’ve just got off work and I’m about to leave the building for the ten minute walk to the subway. One of my upper level English students sees that I’m planning to eat a pear on the way and she’s immediately concerned.

“You’re going to eat that outside?”

“Of course!”

“But it’s cold and windy! You can’t eat that outside!”

“Why not?” I know exactly what’s coming.

“You’ll get wind in your stomach!” The other students voice their agreement.

I know what she’s talking about because I’ve heard this before. Fear of getting cold “wind” in your “stomach” is considered at least as reasonable as covering your mouth when you cough to avoid spreading germs. But this time, instead of having the same old predictable conversation about how foreigners don’t know anything about getting “wind” in their “stomachs” or our “fire” going up and down, I decide to have fun with it.

“It’s no problem. Foreigners can’t get wind in their stomachs. Only Chinese people can get that disease. Getting wind in your stomach is a special disease only for Chinese people.”

She doesn’t believe me, and gives me an annoyed look to boot, like she’s not sure if I’m making fun of her/China/Chinese medicine or not. And I’m not, mostly; I’m just curious to see what will happen if I appeal to inherent biological differences between foreigners and Chinese (something that’s not uncommon for Chinese people to do in other situations) instead of chalking it up to cultural differences that affect how our respective societies understand health.

When Tianjiners wear face masks (口罩) in public it’s not because of air pollution or swine flu. These are cloth face masks, not medical face masks, and people wear them because it’s cold outside and they don’t want to get “wind” in their “stomachs” (受风 — to receive/suffer wind). I put quotes around those words because in Chinese medical theory they both carry important nuances and added dimensions that don’t correspond exactly with what we normally mean when when we say wind and stomach. (I borrowed this image from a Chinese website. It’s supposedly from Tianjin.)

For more about Chinese medicine:

Q&A with an American doctor who practices TCM

That’s TCM as in Traditional Chinese Medicine, not transcendental meditation (TM), though they do that, too, here. I’ve been told that many Chinese people assume that Western medicine is better for things like surgery and that Chinese medicine is better for colds and flu and diarrhea. It’s flu season the last couple weeks, lots of people have been sick, and they were passing around the most common and famous packaged Chinese flu medicines in the office. They didn’t taste bad, but do they do anything? I was surprised how clearly they were able to explain things in this little Q&A: Chinese Medicine & Flu: A Q&A With TCM Doctor

TCM-related posts:

Tianjin bathhouse guasha: OWW!!!

The first time I tried guāshā (刮痧), the traditional Chinese scraping/rubbing therapy for having too much “fire” in your body (which can make you get a cold), a Chinese friend told the shÄ«fu to do it a little lighter than usual (轻一点儿) and it only got uncomfortable at the last two or so strokes on each line. The second time I told the shÄ«fu the same thing and barely felt anything, which kind of seemed like a rip off. This time I’m ready for the real deal so I don’t tell the guy anything.

Instead of using a coin or an animal horn to do the scraping/rubbing he uses a small-size fire cup; it feels like having a magnet on your back that’s attracted to your skin. It also means I’m getting suctioned and scraped/rubbed at the same time. And he does 30 strokes per line — I know because I’m counting… oohhh, am I counting! I’m grinding my teeth by the time he gets to 24 or 25. It hurts the worst on the sides of my lower back (where it’s soft) and on the back of my neck, I guess because there’s less flesh there. But I’m determined, and try to make conversation to distract myself from the pain. The shÄ«fu is a southerner who came to Tianjin from Anhui province in the early 90’s. Ow! Rrrrr… uuugh! The photo is from the morning after.

This bathhouse is a different kind from the first one we tried a few times. That first bathhouse was the lowest-level business/recreation-oriented kind that charge 10-12 kuài to get in. Last night’s bathhouse is a step below that. It was originally built as part of the neighbourhood either in 1980 or just before — one old man peeling off his callouses on the edge of the tub said he’d been going there since 1980. It’s 5-6 kuài to get in. Back then most people used public baths as much out of necessity as for recreation. Indoor plumbing and heating in these 30-year-old neighbourhoods is poor and back then people didn’t so much want to shower at home, especially in the winter. Many still don’t, because even though household gas or electric hot water heaters are now common and more affordable, the government-controlled heating is often virtually useless in these older places. Thankfully this bathhouse is too small for xiÇŽojiÄ›s; there’s no back room or private rooms to put them in. Plus there’s a women’s side, too; when I entered the lobby a mother and her happily excited 11-year-old daughter were just receiving their locker keys for an after-dinner shower. This is the one (the only one in that area) that Mr. Lu said “doesn’t have any funny business” (没有乱七八糟).

It’s definitely a step down from the first place in terms of facilities. I’m glad I brought my own towel, because otherwise it’d be a public towel that has already been used by several people that evening. Same with the shower shoes. For soap and shampoo you’re also on your own. Signs on the wall overlooking the tubs list what kinds of skin, venereal, and other transmittable diseases are forbidden in the tubs. Next to the signs there’s a picture of puppies sitting on heart pillows, and next to that a 1970’s-looking pin-up drawing of a woman who would be considered too fat by North American pin-up “standards.”

It was definitely great for language practice, and relaxing, but I don’t know if I’ll go back. It was over a half-hour bike ride home straight on into heavy wind in sub-zero temperatures. There’s gotta be a similar place closer to our apartment. Plus, it was pretty dirty. Ideally I’d find a closer and cleaner place for around the same price without xiÇŽojiÄ›s where I can return multiple times — that way I don’t have to have the same conversations (“What country are you from? blah blah blah…”) every time I go because I’ll see the same people. Maybe that’s a tall order, but it’s worth keeping an eye out, I think.

Other bathhouse & Chinese medicine/therapy posts: