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Expat's Eye
UPDATED: December 13, 2010 Web Exclusive
Ouch!: An Afternoon of Acupuncture

My Chinese friends and colleagues have extolled the virtues of TCM to me on numerous occasions. I've heard success stories and horror stories, a notable example being one friend whose broken foot was bound in a baijiu-and-herb-infused wrapping. His foot healed eventually; whether the medicine expedited his recovery or not, I cannot say. But knowing what little I do know about biology and anatomy, I just find some of the stuff hard to swallow, both literally and figuratively.

I've even gotten in a few heated discussions, such as when a friend proclaimed that pregnant women shouldn't eat or drink cold things during their pregnancy. Knowing that pregnant women in the West are known to eat whole tubs of ice cream in one sitting, I found that particular point especially hard to believe. But then, I've never been pregnant.

In fact, my skepticism is relatively unfounded, when you consider the fact that I've never actually tried any TCM for myself. A past employer recommended drinking a certain kind of Chinese tea to ward off potential H1N1 (also known as "swine flu") infections. I passed on the tea and just stuck with washing my hands frequently and avoiding public places, as I always do during flu season. I have yet to contract swine flu, or any other flu, for that matter – I guess I must be doing something correctly, no?

However, I finally got the chance to put my skepticism to the test when I went to a TCM clinic in the Sanlitun SOHO office complex last week. I was informed by a colleague that we would be meeting a doctor who specializes in acupuncture and moxibustion. For the uninitiated, acupuncture is when they stick a bunch of needles in specific spots around your body; moxibustion is the practice of grinding up mugwort herb and burning it on the surface of the skin, sometimes resulting in scarification. I simply couldn't wait.

We set off for the doctor's office last Wednesday afternoon. Upon arrival, we were warmly welcomed by the receptionists, and seated in a pleasant lobby with green plants, sculptures and a stockpile of tea leaves set in cabinets against one wall. The overall effect was calming, which I suppose is the whole point when you're getting ready to have tiny pins stuck all over your body.

A doctor appeared, and spoke to us for a few minutes. My colleague noted that he looked a bit young: "Here, there are certain professions where it is better to look older. Lawyer, judge, doctor..." The man we spoke with could not have been much older than 25 or so. This did not bode well for my acupuncture experience.

But just moments later, the precocious doctor disappeared and an older, more venerable-looking man came to give us a brief interview. He spoke about the basic tenets of acupuncture, discussing how it works and describing its effects. It wasn't long before he had finished his spiel, however – and then, it was time for me to go under the needle.

I took a seat next to the doctor at a high counter near the tea cabinet; he asked me to give him my right wrist. He positioned three fingers on it, almost as though he was taking my pulse; however, he moved the fingers around and was apparently looking for something else. I gave him my other wrist in turn, where he moved his fingers around some more. He checked my right wrist one more time before deciding he was satisfied with whatever it was that he was looking for.

Then came the needles. The doctor informed me that he would insert one needle into my hand, around the ball of my thumb; the other needle would go into the crook of my elbow. I didn't feel the first needle until it was almost all the way in – pain exploded like lightning in my hand as the video camera we brought along captured my every grimace. The needle for my elbow, on the other hand, went in smoothly and effortlessly. I sat with the needles in my arm for a moment, noticing how they ticked back and forth in time with my pulse. The doctor said something to the camera, perhaps explaining the function of these particular needle placements. Then the needles came out, and I was finished with my "appointment."

When I asked the doctor if he had a diagnosis, he simply said that I "needed a massage" and should come back to the clinic for a full acupuncture and massage treatment. I politely declined.

Did I feel any better that day, after my acupuncture treatment? Not particularly. Did I feel any worse? Can't say I did. I'm afraid the jury is still out.

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