An encounter with a foreign healthcare system can be an eye-opener in many ways. It may be distressing, it may be illuminating, but it’s definitely an effective way of peeling back the outer layers of culture and getting right down to the core.
When my brother moved to the USA, for example, he was shocked to see cash registers at the doctor’s office. Coming from Canada, where universal healthcare means we never see a doctor’s bill, he found it hard at first to wrap his head around the commingling of Medicine and Commerce.
My moment of medical culture shock came in Singapore. I had developed a searing pain in my tailbone that was seriously destroying my quality of life: I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t sleep, and I chose to stand during an 8-hour flight to Sydney because sitting was agony. The pain had started without warning, and my Australian-trained family doctor couldn’t figure out what was causing it, never mind how to treat it.
One day, in the midst of what should have been a lovely lunch at Zambuca with my Singaporean friend Sally, she remarked that I didn’t have to rely on Western medicine to fix what ailed me. Then she whipped out her phone and made an appointment for me to see her family sinseh (Traditional Chinese Medicine master).
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has been a part of Chinese culture for more than three thousand years. It’s deeply engrained in the psyche of Singaporeans, although in true Singaporean fashion, they have no trouble dividing their healthcare needs between TCM and Western medicine.
TCM takes a more holistic approach to health and wellbeing than allopathic (Western) medicine does. It’s concerned with maintaining a state of equilibrium of the various energies — known as Qi — within the body. An imbalance of Qi results in disease. Whereas a Western doctor treats the symptom (eg., an ulcer), the Chinese doctor treats the underlying cause of the symptom, and then, once the balance of Qi is restored, maintains it to prevent further illness.
The difference was apparent right away. When I first consulted my family doctor about my tailbone, she asked when the pain had started, how intense it was, if there had been any trauma to the area — that sort of thing. She then physically examined my coccyx.
The Chinese Master never clapped eyes on my bare bum. He looked closely at my entire (gowned) body, especially my eyes, nails, and tongue. He asked a lot of questions that seemed pointless, but Sally (who often came with me to translate, bless her) explained he was trying to get a picture of my overall state of health, not just fixating on the one part of my body that was causing me grief.
His treatment room was as cramped and crowded as his waiting room. Privacy was minimal. As the only Westerner there, I was a source of intense interest, but that was fine with me, because I was staring at my surroundings at least as much as the locals were staring at me.
I got a bird’s eye view of some of the more common TCM treatments. I saw a man with a dozen or so acupuncture needles — designed to balance Qi and increase his circulation — sticking out of his body. I saw a dizzying array of jars containing some funky-looking herbs, which would be combined and ground up according to each patient’s needs.
The most intriguing sight was a man lying face-down on a table with several angry-looking red welts on his back. The sinseh told me it was a treatment called “cupping.” It works like this: the interiors of small glass cups are heated, and the cups are placed against the skin. As they cool, the resulting vacuum creates suction, which stimulates the flow of Qi and blood to the area. “Not painful,” the Master assured me with a smile. It leaves a helluva mark, though.
My treatment involved a lot of pressing, thumping, and rubbing — usually nowhere near my coccyx. It was often excruciating, and a couple of times I was reduced to tears. Sometimes I left the clinic feeling better, but it never lasted. Obviously, my Qi was terribly out of whack. As time went on, the effort to get to the out-of-the-way clinic (and, frankly, the lack of the quick fix I was looking for), meant I visited the Master less and less often.
Eventually, I returned to my family doctor with my tail(bone) between my legs. After consulting with some colleagues, she diagnosed coccygeal bursitis and sent me to physiotherapy.
My ang moh lack of patience notwithstanding, I like to think my condition was cured through a co-operative East-meets-West intercultural effort. But although I can sit without discomfort these days — hallelujah! — the story doesn’t have a completely happy ending: Now I spend my time obsessing over the dismal state of my Qi.
I know you’ve got a great expat medical story you’re just dying to share! That’s why I’ve got a comments section, my friends. 🙂