Expat Magazine

Traditional Chinese Medicine: That Time I Tried Acupuncture in China….Alone!

By Mint Mocha Musings @nicoledwebb


In hindsight, I probably should’ve known better than to attempt to go to a local medical establishment in Xi an, on my own! And by that I mean without my walking, talking dictionary in my back pocket – also known as ‘a dear Chinese speaking friend’ to ease my fears and translate for me.

Clearly, sleep-deprived and a little delirious, I’ve obviously forgotten where I actually am! “Ahh hello, Nicole, you don’t speak Chinese, remember?” Well, not well enough for this sort of encounter!

But, here I was, hurtling along the freeway with a non English speaking driver, off to see the Acupuncturist or ‘Zhen Jiu’ as I soon discover it is in Chinese. Everyone has said to me, if you do anything health wise in China, acupuncture it is! And given it’s been practiced for thousands of years here, it’s hard to disagree.

Trivial fact: There is evidence of acupuncture around 100 BC.

Acupuncture in the Ming Dynasty

Acupuncture in the Ming Dynasty

That said, about half way there, I realise I don’t actually know where the place is. All I have is an address in Chinese characters. Last time I was with said driver, going anywhere other than school, he got us totally lost, despite having the address and several people explaining to him in Chinese.

I frantically text the address to Ava’s Chinese babysitter….asking her if it has any street numbers in it. I already know it doesn’t…but I’m naively hoping she will miraculously give me some clue to where I’m going.

All I know, is that it’s near the coffee shop I’ve frequented a few times. It dawns on me, there are a gazillion shops in this area and even more concerning, how the heck am I going to know which one says “Acupuncturist?!”

Our babysitter manages to find me a picture of the shop front, but she may as well be sending me a picture of a random door in Timbuktu… it’s a door with gold Chinese characters above it, like oh so many of the shop entrances.

By now we are driving around in circles, peering at random buildings that all look similar. The driver eventually gets out and asks an elderly man on a bike. I’m doubtful he’ll know so I call the Chinese lady who recommended the place to my foreign friends in the first place and she explains to the driver, but alas, it’s to no avail….we keep driving, back and forth.

It’s times like this I muse why we don’t have a Sat Nav, but  in China everyone likes to give directions referring to the compass. North, East, South or West. For someone who is ‘directionally challenged’, this is about as helpful as telling me to fly myself to the North Pole.

The driver is now muttering under his breath in Chinese and I keep shoving my phone at him with someone different to talk to in Chinese, realising it’s probably futile. 

By now we’ve done so many circles I couldn’t tell you which way is up, down, north, south, east or west. I’m about to give up and call it a day, with the stark realisation, I should’ve known better than to attempt this mission alone.  I give it one last shot and call the hotel concierge with some directions from my friend in the UK, who (thankfully) has jet lag and is awake when I text her.

Expat in China acupuncture Xian

We come to a halt outside a building that looks absolutely nothing like the picture I’ve been sent, which immediately makes me dubious. Where am I being dropped? I shake my head, but tell the driver to wait (also known as gesturing wildly) while I step gingerly inside to see if it looks remotely like what I expect an acupuncturist to look like.

It’s a hot mid summer’s day and the temperature gauge is nudging 36 degrees. My anxiety hasn’t helped my inner thermometer and I feel myself literally fall through the door in a ball of sweat, gazing questioningly around the room. I can see what looks to be traditional medicine and a man says “Hello” in English pointing for me to go upstairs….as if he instantly knows who I am and why I’m here.

I have no appointment  – none is needed I’m told but I am filled with dread that I could be anywhere….my imagination running away with me and I worry it’s some evil medical laboratory that may be about to harvest my organs!

Acupuncture in China

I scan my phone trying to find the address I have and thrust it under his nose. He looks amused and nods, yes this is it! I guess this is where I just take a calculated risk and believe it’s going to be ok. I run outside to the car and give the driver the thumbs up (although they don’t really use this gesture much in China but I assume he knows what I mean).

It soon becomes evident the English speaking male’s vocabulary doesn’t extend past “hello”. Typically, in the height of my angst, my Chinese is all but lost. I mumble about being told someone spoke English here and he simply smiles and shakes his head, ushering me upstairs, where I’m told (I think) to sit down in a row of lounge chairs…

The air is stifling and I realise there’s no air conditioning.

About now it dawns on me that I need to call someone to explain to the practitioners why I’m here and what I need. I decide the hotelier’s PA is probably my best bet, seeing as she called them yesterday for me. I ask the English-non-English speaking man to wait while I anxiously swipe through my phone. With everyone on We Chat in China, finding their actual phone number constantly eludes me. Finally I just message her saying, call me, and much to my relief she does. I put her on to the doctor and then ask where the toilet is.

Back downstairs, I seriously consider whether I should just make a run for it….leave and pretend this never happened.

But I dust myself off from the squat toilet and tip toe back upstairs, inhaling deeply. This time I am told to remove my shoes and get up onto one of the beds. I eyeball the room for evidence of hygiene standards. It looks pristinely clean, although I note the white doctor’s coat is smeared with dirt.

He tries in vain to speak to me but I’m lost….his sidekick, a  woman, speaks more slowly and her gentle demeanour calms me. I hope they can’t see that I’m shaking, just a little.

Both of them immediately feel my hands and feet and then in unison, gasp in horror. I hear them saying the words for cool and derive they think I am too cold. (Which is kind of ludicrous given the current climate but I understand in Chinese medical terms, it’s a possibility). Then they ask me to stick out my tongue and almost recoil in horror with a lot of  back and forth glances. The male doctor takes my pulse and then says something to me again. Clearly he’s not giving up. I think he’s asking me if I drink cold water and eat ice-cream. All I can respond with is “sometimes”. I know how much this is a mortal sin in Chinese culture, so much so, I can honestly say, hand on heart, I rarely have cold water these days.

Mind you, today of all days, I think, I’m sure I could be forgiven for indulging in a little bin xi lin (Ice cream)!

Next thing the needles are out. I am relieved to see they come from a closed packet…having heard a few horror stories of needles being reused in China.

acupuncture china xian

I recall having acupuncture many years ago in Sydney….apart from the needles, so far, this is not quite how I remember it.

There are two in each foot, one in each hand and one in my du zi! Stomach.

I note that when it’s time for the one in my stomach, the male doctor promptly leaves the room so the woman can place a towel over my lower half.

The needles hurt, more than I remember! I grimace but it’s bearable.

To warm me up a little more, I then have two heat lamps placed over me.. One at my feet and one at my stomach…. I feel like a pig on a spit!

The male doctor tries his Chinese again and I manage to apologise and say I only speak a little Chinese. …The lovely sidekick, says “Mei Guanxi.” No problem.

Next thing, she explains, because I’m so cold, she would like to use something else and holds up a lighter and what looks like a solid toilet roll. I nod with caution… I’m a desperate woman and I’ll try anything but still… I’m a little scared. Is she going to brand me with this poker stick? I mentally recall the story I read about the Chinese man who had so much cupping his back was infected with a mass of black gangrenous holes.

moxa- acupuncture

She lights the end of it and then lets it burn and smoulder slowly like a giant cigar. She spends the next thirty minutes wafting it over my hands, feet and stomach. Thankfully it doesn’t touch my skin but I think she really is literally cooking me now and I try desperately not to choke on the smoke which is filling the enclosed room. Later when I relay this to my Australian naturopath, she relieves my concerns by telling me this concept is actually called ‘Moxibustion’ and is even used in the Western world…..I Google it and discover it’s an ancient Chinese medicine therapy using moxa made from dried mugwort to among many other things, stimulate circulation through the pressure points and induce a smoother flow of blood and qi.

Beads of sweat dripping down me ….clammy and sweaty….I close my eyes and try to relax.

I hear the faint click of the doctor’s phone and can see him out of the corner of my eye at the back of the room. I suspiciously think he’s taking photos of the strange white woman on their bed.

Finally in what feels like forever,  it’s over. The heat lamps are off and the needles come out, painlessly. The doctor says something I don’t get and walks out, closing the door behind me. I’m not sure whether to stay lying there or it’s finished. In the end it’s clear no one is coming back, so I get up put my shoes on and walk out. They are both standing there, waiting for me, big smiles on their faces.

I ask them if I need to come back and they point to what looks like a tub with a foot massager in the bottom and say “tomorrow?” I tell them not tomorrow, but maybe next week.

My earlier suspicions are confirmed, when, as if it’s mandatory after every doctor’s appointment in China, the obligatory photo opportunity is presented.

I try not to look visibly amused and smile politely. I’m glowing with a fine layer of sweat but of course! First with the male doctor then the female. “Piaoliang!” beautiful, he says.…..and then we exchange pleasantries and I remember I need to pay. They usher me downstairs to the man with English, but no English.

It’s a grand total that is equivalent to $15 Australian dollars. Then they ask for my phone number which is kind of funny given they have no clue who I am. Any appointment in the West and they would have all of your details before you set foot in the door. After such an up close and personal visit I realise they don’t even know my name. “Wo jiao Nicole”, I say and write it for them on the scrap piece of paper, they give me.

We say “Zai jian” Goodbye…. and I tell them I’ll see them next week. No need to give them a time or appointment, I guess like today, I’ll  just turn up.  I tell them my friend will call them to see what they have to say about my ‘condition’.

Later she rings them and as suspected they tell her about my cold feet and hands and the tongue! Apparently they can see exactly what my problem is from these three things.  I’ll need to go five times and tonight my sleep will be just fine, they say.

I don’t know about that, but even though I smell like I’ve been roasting marsh mellows over a bonfire, I feel relaxed!

This is China.

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