The day I landed in Shanghai was the first day of the Year of the Ox. It was 1997, I was 20, and I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. We were staying at dorms at East China Normal University and the whole campus had poured out onto the back streets. Everywhere I turned someone was lighting off fireworks, banging a loud drum, drinking a large bottle of Becks (the only choices in the whole country were Becks, Tsingtao and Tiger) and eating up a storm. Groups of people tucked into a dragon costume were wandering down the streets. Unlike in the west, this New Year celebration lasted for 2 weeks! Families came together, often bringing oranges for luck, and shared long noodles and the kids got little red envelopes filled with money.
Every Chinese New Year is a little special for me as it was after that 2 week celebration that I first started learning about the many facets of Acupuncture. For the following 6 months, I tried to absorb every little detail about this whole new way of thinking and treating people. I interned at hospitals where they had integrated Acupuncture into every ward. I spent a lot of time with the neurologists who worked in the stroke unit. Every other Western physician I’d met had been so cold and clinical, and these Chinese practitioners were warm and caring, trying to get people to speak and move. There was certainly a typical hierarchy of care as you’d imagine in any medical setting, but what amazed me was how the physician’s treated the acupuncturists with the utmost respect. They believed their treatments were a crucial component to getting the patient out the door in good health as fast as possible.
I woke up early most mornings, went to the park and learned Tai Chi from as many different people as I could. Back then, so few people spoke English so I was relying on my terrible Mandarin. I’d only studied the language for a single semester, and half the time I think they just thought I was dumb for not following them properly. I got hit in the head with a fan a few too many times while practicing. I learned from a small, portly elderly man who’s Yang style form involved the smoothest movements I’d ever seen. He looked like he was ripped out of a PBS documentary about "Mystical China.”
My favorite teacher was actually a middle-aged woman who taught something called Mu Lan Jian. If Mulan sounds familiar it’s because it was based on the legend of the female warrior who pretended to be a man and snuck into the army to save her father, just like in the Disney movie. I picked it because the style she was teaching involved these two long swords that I thought were mesmerizing. Given that it was a style meant for women, I found myself being the only guy in the group, but the teacher didn’t care and was fierce. She was well grounded in the philosophy of Yin and Yang, which is also what Acupuncture is based on, so it helped me put everything I was learning in the hospital all together. Now if you know me, you know the last thing I ever want to talk about is Yin/Yang or QI, as I think we have enough scientific research to understand some of how Acupuncture works on the body; relying on a 2500 year old religious theory isn’t necessary anymore. Still, it was just like what you’d imagine a dream of Asia would be to a young American. Purely magical.
As we welcome in the Year of the Dog, I always think back to the first Chinese New Year I ever truly experienced, and how it led me to this journey of Acupuncture. The style of care that I saw in the hospitals in China is what I’ve always tried to replicate at the Healing Arts Center and why we try to be as integrative as possible, both with the physicians in our own offices as well as with others our patients are working with. So from all of us at HAC, Happy New Year / Gong Xi Fa Cai!