Chapter 28: Of Chinese Medicine and Balance

In Chinese traditional medicine, there is a saying: anger hurts your liver, melancholy hurts your lungs, thinking hurts your spleen, happiness hurts your heart. The thing is, we are all angry, melancholy, happy, or just thinking at different times in life. What hurts is when we do it too much, without balance.

John, my Chinese boyfriend, thinks my life has lost balance, ever since our time together during National Day — and my health hasn’t been the same.

My back and neck felt unusually sore after an evening swim Friday, October 11. The pain lingered uncomfortably for over a week, even after I received Chinese medical massage. So when John came in the weekend of October 18, he took me to the hospital for an X-ray.

“Your neck has straightened out,” the doctor said to me, looking at the black-and-white photo illuminated in his office. All of those days in the office, sitting at an office chair before a desk, had hurt my neck.

But once John and I left the doctor’s office, it was as if the doctor was still in — the doctor of Chinese traditional medicine and wisdom. “You need more activity at work,” John commanded. “Every hour, you should be getting up and moving your neck, your waist, your back,” he said, wriggling his own neck, back and waist, like a physical therapy demonstration.

Even as I began to rebalance my neck by following John’s advice, things unravelled again — healthwise — when I caught yet another round of flu, just as John came to visit the weekend of November 1. And once again, John wasn’t merely my Chinese boyfriend — he was here to teach me how I wasn’t living my life according to traditional Chinese wisdom.

“You live an unscientific lifestyle,” John lectured me, as I convalesced under the covers of my bed. “You don’t wear enough clothes to bed, or when you get up. You don’t change the air frequently in your apartment. You don’t have a regular mealtime. And your swimming is causing you to catch a cold, because you don’t dry your hair.”

It was the kind of lecture parents give to elementary-aged children, not young twentysomethings like me. But, the thing is, I agreed with everything John said. My life was out of balance, and out of sync with thousands of years of wisdom about health. And, as if I needed another reminder, I got the flu again the following weekend.

I didn’t know how long it would take to heal my neck, or how long before I stopped getting incessant bouts of flu and upper-respiratory infections. But I did know one thing — I had a healthy John, beside me, to balance my life out.

Did you ever experience mysterious illnesses in China? And did your Chinese friend or girlfriend or boyfriend help to heal you, or correct your “unscientific” ways of living?


Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, visit the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.

6 Replies to “Chapter 28: Of Chinese Medicine and Balance”

  1. Oh we were all constantly sick for the first year in Beijing! Seriously, each kid got that horrible IV antibiotic drip at least twice that year. We just weren’t used to the germs yet. Once we built up our immunities we were fine.

    I do get amused when people tell me that my kids are going to get sick because they’re not wearing enough layers of clothes in the winter. I tell them the truth, that my kids don’t feel cold the way we do. (I let them decide for themselves how many layers to wear in the winter.) And I love how we make it through the whole winter without anyone getting sick.

    Oh, and do you know almost everyone in high tech has the straightened-out neck?

  2. It’s funny how different cultures have different approaches when it comes to dealing with health. Having lived in both China and Japan, I have found that, in some ways the US finds a happy medium between the two.

    One example: Chinese parents bundle their children up with so many layers during the winter, they look as if they would bounce right back up if they were to fall. Japanese parents (at least those in Tokyo where I lived) force their young children to wear shorts during the middle of winter to “make them tough”. Somewhere around junior high age, Japanese children gain enough autonomy to dress themselves and naturally choose to bundle up like everyone else in winter.

    While I don’t necessarily subscribe to the “you’ll catch a cold if you don’t wear enough” school of medicine, I do think there are centuries of wisdom in Chinese medicine that can help us to improve our health — if not taken to ridiculous extremes.

  3. That’s interesting. I didn’t notice this difference that we’re wearing much more than others.
    I have to say our society and our world are changing so quick that I doubt the old ways or medicine can help us.

    1. Sorry, again, for the late response to all of these great comments. I’ve just barely recovered from a flu that really wiped me out this week…badly. (And, yes, my husband was back with his advice, but I mostly agree with it, so it’s all good).

      @melanie gao, thanks for sharing once again! Glad to hear I’m not the only one who was struggling with that flu in China (or with a straightened-out neck). That’s great that your kids are used to living in China, and don’t need all of the layers.

      @GE Anderson, thanks for the comment! It’s interesting how the reverse is true in Japan.

      @adam, thanks for weighing in. Personally, though, I think Chinese traditional medicine is a treasure. It may be old, but there is a lot of wisdom there, and much of it can keep up with a changing society. For example, a Chinese doctor here told me to drink ginseng tea to keep my complexion free of acne (青春痘) — and it worked like nothing I’d tried before. I’ve found, when I don’t drink it. the acne comes back. You wouldn’t find this kind of advice in any Western guidance on acne…and it’s a shame, because it is low-cost and effective.

      @louieman, thanks for the comment. Sounds like this is a universal experience for many foreigners in China!

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