My friend took my pulse last night. He’s training to become an Ayurvedic doctor, and selected me as one of his case studies. I had no idea Ayurvedic tradition also takes pulses, just like in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It’s been a long time since someone took my pulse to listen to my inner system.

I was raised on Traditional Chinese Medicine. Chinese doctors were part of my family’s life before I was born, and especially after, because my birth caused a great deal of physical ailment for my mother. Well actually, I would suggest that it was a combination between my stubborn desire to remain two weeks longer in the womb with Australian doctor’s lack of attention to my mother that caused her to fall ill and remain quite weak after childbirth. Still, my mother never let me forget whose fault it was that destroyed her normal health and rendered her a slave to herbal medicinal brews that stank up the entire house.

We regularly visited a really old Chinese man. Though he was very lean and his cheekbones stood out, the Chinese doctor did not look unhealthy. His skin was taut, and stretched over his skull; his eyes were alert. He wore square-shaped plastic spectacles, and his office was a small square wooden table in the corner of one of the rooms of his house in Sydney. Over the table hung a long vertical calendar, produced by a local Chinese grocer, its dates in both English and Chinese characters and featuring monthly photographs of smiling fetching Chinese models.

My mother had searched long and hard for an experienced Chinese herbalist doctor, simply because the Chinese community in Sydney in the early 1970s was so small. A single black desk lamp shone as the doctor sat facing the wall and his patient, and my mother placed her left hand, then right hand, palm-up, on a miniature cushion. His fingers were light: the index, middle, and ring finger placed delicately over her inner wrist, with his head cocked slightly up, listening attentively to the beat beneath his fingertips. The examination doesn’t take more than a minute, and then the doctor asks to see her tongue. Then he takes out a piece of A4 paper, and starts writing his prescription in long columns, the Chinese cursive flowing from a cheap ballpoint pen. He instructs her on how many dosages she’ll need, and whether or not she can re-use each packet of herbs for a second brewing. Also, of how many cups of water per packet. Afterwards, we take the prescription to the herbal store, and an attendant behind the counter but in front of a wall of wooden drawers lays out pink squares of paper, swiftly picking out and measuring the weight of each prescribed herb, and dumps them in equal portions onto each sheet of paper. I always found this process fascinating and would perch on the stools up close to the action. Each paper and its contents of various herbs are then folded into packets, and then dropped into a plastic bag, along with a few rolls of Haw flakes.

That’s how I grew up, thinking all doctors’ visits were as subtle, non-invasive, and simple. Whenever I caught a cold, my mother would bring me to the same Chinese doctor. He became a friend of the family, and we were always glad to see him, which is not the case when it comes to visits to Western doctors and their clinics. I too sat on the wooden chair, calmly presenting each inner wrist over the padded cushion as the doctor’s cool fingertips pushed gently down to read my pulse. Many times the Chinese doctor would need to press down deeper, saying my pulse was weak. Afterwards, I knew that I would then have to drink three days worth of a bowl of black-brown thick medicinal brew, and feel better. The brew was never good tasting, and to the uninitiated, utterly foul smelling. Having been indoctrinated at an early age, I never complained. This was medicine, and afterwards I would be given a bowlful of warm water to flush down the taste in my mouth. Not to mention a roll of sweet Haw flakes!

Mother raised me saying, “Your health is the number one priority. Man can have riches, material goods, food, shelter, but without one’s health, you have nothing. And as much as I want to, I cannot drink your medicine for you, so you had better look after yourself.” With this reasoning, I never questioned the doctor, his practice, or the smelly teas my mother brewed for me. Whether from my dutiful nature or not, Chinese medicine did not fail me.

Not all Chinese medicines were administered to me simply because I was ill at the moment. Some teas and soups my mother made were for bolstering my health. Chinese medicine is about preventative, not reactive measures. After her ordeal at the hands of Australian doctors, she was firmly convinced I was not the strongest in constitution and looked over my health with absolute vigilance. In the hot Australian summers, she chased after me, smoothing extra men’s handkerchiefs in layers between my back and my clothes to soak up the sweat. “Blood sweat,” she would explain, “when you are sweating too much that you sweat out your blood. Not good to reabsorb your own sweat.” Was I truly sweating out my essence, or was it the abominably hot Aussie summer heat? As a consequence, I’m not sure if I truly was a sickly child or if it my mother’s vigilance that prevented me from falling ill. Was this a case of the chicken or the egg? Why are some people born with weak pulses and others not?

Alistair sits and takes my pulse. His hands are warm and comforting: good doctor’s hands. I am anticipating the usual “Your pulse is weak” reading. After a few seconds of listening to my pulse, he utters a completely different statement: “Your constitution is really strong!” I’m astonished, and ask him to repeat what he finds. “Your pulse…it’s strong and regular. You’re in really good health. I can’t detect any irregularity. Must be the work you do,” he says, referring to the Thai Yoga massage. I nod, telling him that ever since transitioning I’ve not fallen ill, and have felt the most fit and robust ever. Which is ironic since my mother feels I am using too much “chi” giving massages which will eventually harm me. Yes, Thai Yoga massage is about energy work, but I’ve never felt sapped from it. Despite working with a lot of different people in close proximity, and travelling throughout London, sometimes pressed up close to sniffling pedestrians, my immunity remains implacable while others fall to season’s changes and passing colds. I’m able to process food effectively, without falling into lethargy, and my energy levels are generally perky.

This Saturday, I am visiting an experienced Chinese herbalist doctor from China. She’s got a reputation for taking lost-cause NHS cases and turning them around. I want to get a second opinion on Alistair’s reading, and see if, after all these years, I’ve actually reversed my mother’s opinion and whether or not my choice in occupation justifies itself on yet another level. For if I do not take care of myself, how can I pass on the very best energy to my clients?

Erica, 34, London UK

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