The Lighter Side of China: The Magic of Medicine

TCM can get rid of headaches

Every culture has its way of dealing with the common cold. Some turn to salt, baking soda and warm water. Others swear by chicken soup. But the thick syrupy traditional Chinese medication named Pei Pa Koa is my remedy. The minute I feel a cold coming on, I begin to take swigs of this syrup several times a day. My wife claims that I am addicted, that I use the slightest bit of discomfort as excuse to turn to this sweet concoction that could double as an ice cream topping. If you have not tried Pei Pa Koa, this caramel-like substance does bring relief to an irritated throat or a ragged cough. I cannot vouch for its efficacy in curing a cold. The taste, though, gets two thumbs up!

I am not a diehard traditional Chinese medication user. I suppose I will use selective remedies as long as they taste good, have some sort of curative power and don’t seem too extreme. Honestly, when I look through the ingredient list for Pei Pa Koa, I have to admit it’s not the Fourleaf Ladybell Root or the Pummelo Peel that attracts me to it as much as the Liquorice Root or Honey.

Many friends and colleagues swear by Tiger Balm in a similar way. They use it as a rub to address nausea brought on by such things as bad air or car sickness or just talking too much. My wife brings the tiny round package with her whenever she leaves the house. Sometimes I am not even out of the driveway and out comes the Tiger Balm. Next she is doing the Tiger Balm swipe. This consists of twisting the top off the tin, sticking your index finger in the aromatic paste, scooping up a dab and rubbing it on your skin. My wife swipes under her nose and on her temples. I get the under-the-nose bit, but I still question how the temple rub helps. I had a former colleague that I believe was the number one consumer of a similar product called Bai Hua You. I used to wonder if I made her nauseous by just talking to her. She used to do a similar swiping motion to apply this medicine at the beginning, middle and end of every meeting I had with her. After a while, I tried to figure out how the words that I used would affect her swiping movement, but I never got this down to a science.

I also admit to using Yunnan Baiyao. This is a powdery substance that, when sprinkled on cuts, stops bleeding immediately. “The military uses this for gunshot wounds,” my wife counseled me at first. “But I just have a small scrape,” I explained. To which she responded, “Good. The smaller the cut, the quicker the powder will work.” Full disclosure: The powder does work but also leaves a scar. Users beware.

There are other Chinese medications that I have tried only once – acupuncture, for example. I have many friends who swear by this treatment, but poking needles throughout my body to balance my inner body qi is just not my thing. Also, I have tried Chinese cupping to sort out a sore shoulder. This treatment did work – and also left huge circle bruises all over my shoulder. A foreign guest of mine once worried out loud about a lady on an elevator who was covered with such bruises. “How horrible,” he remarked. At which point I tried to explain the cup-fire-jar technique to him. As medicinal methods for healing sore muscles go, the combination of a match, open flame and a jar doesn’t sound very scientific, but I suppose it’s just one step further than applying Bengay. Why settle for a heat rub when you can have the whole fire in a bottle?

Browsing through a traditional Chinese medicine shop can also be educational. There’s a TCM solution for pretty much anything that ails you. For example, ginseng root is a very popular remedy for improving the inner qi and acts particularly on the heart, spleen and lungs. Also held in high esteem is the caterpillar fungus. It is said that this substance (that looks like caterpillars but is in fact a parasitic fungus that feeds on the insect) can help cure back pain, knee pains, coughing and even tuberculosis. I even found a brand of natural aloe gel in our local Chinese medicine shop. I wasn’t taken by the gel as much as its brand name: “Leap Year” Aloe Gel. I wondered what marketer would brand a product “Leap Year,” as if it only works once every four years.

What I haven’t done – nor have any plan to do – is to try out any of the traditional Chinese medications that help with sexual performance. Nothing personal, but I have never drunk wine with deer penis in it, nor have I visited the popular penis restaurant in Beijing that is known for its yak, ox and donkey penis. I have also managed not to drink snake blood although I have been assured of its aphrodisiac value. Actually, I fear for the partner of the person who dines on donkey penis, drinks snake blood and eats turtle testicles. I envision some slow moving monster-like vampire figure that never sleeps.

When I joked with my wife about the dangers of such a mixture, she looked at me in disbelief. “What kind of twisted person thinks of such things?” she asked. “Have you been drinking too much of that cough syrup again?”

Scott Kronick is president of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, North Asia.

Photo: Coloribus.com

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