February 2005 (v7 i4)
Counting the Ways Since 1997
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Qi whiz: dabbling in traditional Chinese medicine
by Todd Nienkerk, Editor-in-Chief

"Well, everything seems to be normal. Your diet is good, which is very important."

She pauses, lifts a page on her clipboard, and scans it. Her soft, red hair is drawn back in a loose ponytail, framing a delicate complexion and light freckles. Her unbuttoned lab coat swells casually out and around her chest; a plastic nametag — Stephanie — rests on the slope of her left breast. She couldn't be more than, oh, 26? 28? Looks like she works out. Jogs, maybe? In a sports bra.

"And your constitution?" Stephanie asks. "It's firm?"

My constitu—? Oh. She's talking about my poop.

The sexual tension is sucked from the room like an alien through an airlock — permanently, infinitely, silently. I shrink slightly and nod.

"Yeah, it's . . . great," I say, wincing immediately.

Like a barber school's, the students of the Academy of Oriental Medicine at Austin work for drastically reduced rates, which is why I'm here. The examination room feels soft, incandescent, and utterly Zen. A Chinese curtain — the collapsible wood-and-paper kind — stretches across one wall for atmosphere. A plush massage table sits propped in the center of the room. On the walls, prints of Japanese woodcuts hang alongside medical illustrations and charts. But these aren't the typical posters you'd find at the dentist ("A Clean Mouth Is a Happy Mouth!") or ophthalmologist ("Get to Know Glaucoma"). Oh, no. These posters describe foods according to their innate "temperatures," the pressure points of the colon, and Chinese herbs, the names of which can only be pronounced with a bifurcated tongue — or by a native speaker.

One particular poster catches my attention. It's a blown-up illustration of an ear, marked with a grid pattern like a phrenology diagram or an archeological dig. The grid's color-coded sections are labeled with miniature drawings of internal organs.

"That's a great point right there." Stephanie indicates a green spot along the ridge above the earlobe. "It unblocks the spleen, helps with stress. Very powerful." I bite my tongue and remind myself that millennia of tradition can't be entirely bullshit — even if it's mostly placebo effect.

While the philosophy of acupuncture is actually rather beautiful, it's so damned illogical and downright weird. I stifle ripples of laughter as she explains that qi ("chee") is the life-force that flows through us, giving us energy, along channels called meridians. Meridians correspond to bodily organs and functions; when they are blocked, the qi cannot flow, and we become ill. Piercing certain points — the bottlenecks along the qi highway — unblocks and releases the qi, restoring balance and health.

In other words, you don't have indigestion — your qi is blocked. You're not bipolar — your qi is blocked. You're not bleeding profusely from a laceration across your femoral artery — your qi is blocked.

I'm being dismissive, I know. Oriental Medicine doesn't address trauma. But this is what's going through my mind as Stephanie and I discuss why I'm here: stress, lethargy, and insomnia. Western medicine failed me; after three hundred dollars' worth of blood work and a "possible" case of mono, I'm ready to try anything.

Stephanie brings in her supervisor, "the doctor." He's a middle-aged Chinese man, bleary-eyed and fidgety.

"The Western diagnosis was mono," Stephanie explains.

They speak in jargon for a few moments and leave to discuss my "treatment plan," which may require a trip to the herbal pharmacy next door.

Alone in that room, surrounded by giant ears and the Great Wave off Kanagawa, I'm struck by something profound: practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine are modern-day heretics. Their beliefs fly in the face of Western religion, philosophy, and culture. Qi can't be photographed or quantified; like ghosts and angels, it's ethereal. According to virtually all Western doctors, it's pure superstition. And, strangely, many of those enlightened docs also believe in a life-force that powers and motivates us: the soul.

Stephanie returns, and it's time to begin. As I take off my shirt and roll up my pants, she shows me a needle — long, hair-thin, slightly weighted at one end — and how she'll insert it. The needle is placed inside a tiny tube pressed against the skin and lightly flicked, propelled like a dart through a miniature blowgun. I lay down on the massage table, limbs slightly splayed. She begins at my feet.

"Breathe in," she commands. I breathe in.

"One . . . two . . . three." I hear the flick, the friction of finger against thumb, but I don't feel anything. No pain, no release. Nothing.

"That was it?" I ask after a pause. There's a needle in my foot.

Minutes later, a dozen more line my legs, chest, and arms. My limbs begin to ache, but in a good way, like after a long hike.

"This is the last one," she says, playfully tapping her finger between my eyes. "Ready?"

I was born ready.

"One . . . two . . . three—"

My forehead explodes. The needle squashes a lemon in my brain, and its guts seep — tingling, metallic — into the furrows and ruts of my frontal lobe, through my limbs and fingers and toes, and down to the floor and through the walls. The qi is really flowing, man, and I'm hooked. I spend the next hour lying perfectly still, grooving on it.
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