My messed-up Qi was a pain in the butt. (And yes, I do mean that literally.)

Tailbone painAn 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. 🙂


About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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10 Responses to My messed-up Qi was a pain in the butt. (And yes, I do mean that literally.)

  1. Msleetobe says:

    I haven’t done much in the way of Eastern medicine here, but I heard a podcast about how one expat had a breech baby, so the doctor burned a moxa stick beside her baby toe (which did in fact turn the baby immediately).

    Just in terms of general health care abroad, I’m a very left wing and universal health care affirming expat Canadian, but I have to say that the Korean system has really left me questioning many aspects of the Canadian system. I never have to worry about not having a family doctor (a serious problem in my part of Canada), I can go to any clinic in any area as a walk in for $3-12 depending on the problem, if I don’t like my doctor, I just go to another one, and many smaller procedures can be done on the spot or with minimal scheduling (not the years it took for my grandparents to get their knee/hip replacements). I still believe in the Canadian system – and especially for major surjuries and prolonged hospital stays it is an excellent system, but I do think that my perception regarding what is possible in health care has changed living abroad.

    And one last thing…my Korean husband is always saying that he needs to excercise because his gi (Korean word for qi), is out of wack.

    • Maria says:

      I’ve heard that about moxibustion, too! I didn’t write about it in my post because I never actually saw anyone undergoing a treatment with moxa (although I did smell it once — I thought it was weed, and wondered what kind of “traditional” medicine the clinic was actually dispensing!)

      I’ve also experienced excellent healthcare overseas, and yeah, it’s hard not to compare there and here. There’s no doubt Canada’s system is at a crossroads: wait times are still a problem, remote areas are underserviced, and I’m sure abuse of the system is widespread. But nobody here ever has to choose between a doctor’s visit and groceries, and that says something about what we value as a society.

  2. bookjunkie says:

    I have tried reflexology, but it didn’t really make me feel much better, but they did pin point areas where I have issues quite accurately. I tend to go for a mix of natural & western medicine. I only see the doctor when I just can’t bear it usually. Don’t like taking medication generally unless I have a super high fever or a really awful flu.

    • Maria says:

      I loved reflexology in Singapore! I always felt better afterwards. Here my medical care is strictly Western, although some Eastern practices are becoming mainstream: my daughter had acupuncture as part of her physio treatment yesterday.

  3. Maria, I felt as if I were in the doctor’s office right with you. Nice story.

    I think if I’m not mistaken that Gwenyth Paltrow had the treatment done on her back that you have the picture of. I remember seeing her show her marks.

    Anyhow, I am an American living in Italy. The positives and negatives of national health care are heavy hitting issues. I do know that here in Italy it’s basically western based medicine although I agree with Tiny Island that reflexology is AWESOME.

    Hope your feeling better.


    • Maria says:

      Ah yes, I remember seeing that photo of Gwyneth Paltrow, too. She obviously wanted the marks noticed — I seem to recall she was wearing a backless dress at the time! So maybe cupping is “in” now?

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I spent some time on your blog and found myself nodding in agreement with your posts on writing (and criticism!) Heading back over there now….

  4. Judy says:

    I had good experiences with acupuncture while living in Dubai and would definitely use it again for pain relief. Although I couldn’t say it cured me, it definitely reduced my dependence on anti-inflammatories, particularly when coupled with self-administered acupressure. I used to think it was a load of rot, but my skepticism was totally overturned. I can now quite easily believe those stories of people having surgery with nothing more than acupuncture for anesthetic. I like the Chinese holistic view of medicine and health; if you analyse their concepts of “balance” much of it is very similar to the advice you got from your grandma – eat well, sleep well and moderation in all things. 🙂

  5. wodezitie says:

    I think many healthcare systems outside of the U.S. tend to focus more on preventive medicine, i.e. how to maintain overall health so you don’t get sick in the first place. The approach therefore usually focuses on many things about a person – their lifestyle, diet, even relationships or traumatic events, in order to find ways to lower stress. Of course, we all get sick sometimes, but if we work towards leading healthier and less stressful lives (both in body and mind) and, as one of your commentators said, doing things in moderation, then we will probably tend to get ill less often. If we led healthier lives, in general, that would save the taxpayers a lot of money, I think, and, more importantly, help people be happier.

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