A couple months ago, my doctor diagnosed me with moderate anxiety. I suspected that this was the case for many years, so the diagnosis came as somewhat of a relief. My panic attacks, rumination, and waves of low self-esteem can finally be defined, explained, and understood.
After filling my prescriptions and shopping for the perfect therapist, the next step was to let my dad know. As I’ve gotten older, we’ve gotten closer, but his response was unexpected:
“Hmm, do you remember when you were eight, and you were hospitalized for H.pylori? Although the test results came back negative, I still suspect that you have some remnants of bad bacteria in your stomach. I know just the Chinese doctor to fix that for you, and then you’ll feel better in no time.”
How could he say this? While I appreciated his care and efforts to help, I felt disappointed – almost betrayed – by his circumvention of the real issue at hand. After we said our goodbyes, the only question on my mind was, “Why are Asian people like this?”
From the outside, one might ascribe my dad as well-meaning but ignorant, misinformed, or perhaps ashamed; however, the context of his reaction – and the reaction of many other Asian parents – is more complex.
Growing up in a first-generation Chinese household, Eastern medicine, also commonly known as Traditional Chinese Medicine, has always been key. Toddler with no appetite? Medicinal herbs. Frequent indigestion? Acupuncture. Even when my grandpa was undergoing chemotherapy, black chicken soup and Buddhist “holy nectar” drops were an essential part of his healthcare regimen. “Western doctors just don’t get it,” they say. “They bury your symptoms in pills and never actually cure you.”
Ah, yes – the age-old rivalry between Eastern medicine and Western medicine. There’s a running joke among my extended relatives that Western doctors treat tinnitus (constant ringing in the ears) by prescribing loud music at night, to cover up the sound. Asians see Western medicine as reactionary and narrow-minded. “Aiyah, how can you drink cold water in the mornings?!”
Indeed, there are distinct differences between Eastern and Western medicine. Each has a different purpose and is most appropriate and effective in its own context. The surgeries and FDC-approved drugs of Western medicine are ideal for immediate effects, while Eastern medicine takes on a holistic view of the body in which all parts are interlinked.
There is an undeniable relationship between physical and mental health. The problem with Eastern medicine’s holistic view, however, is that psychological issues are seen only as symptoms of a full-body ailment. In line with Asian culture, the mundane – one’s body, money, or land – hold far greater importance than the “abstract” – one’s mental and emotional well being or sense of self-actualization. As a result, mental health issues are rarely effectively addressed in Asian communities.
According to the American Psychological Association and the National Latino and Asian American Study, Asian-Americans “have a 17.30 percent overall lifetime rate of any psychiatric disorder and a 9.19 percent 12-month rate, yet Asian-Americans are three times less likely to seek mental health services than Whites.” Only 8.6 percent of Asian-Americans sought any type of mental health support in 2010, compared to nearly 18 percent of the general population nationwide.
A 2011 study by Palo Alto University found that the small number of Asian-Americans who use mental health services “are highly disturbed in terms of psychiatric disorders,” and unfortunately, this small population of Asian-Americans makes it difficult to accurately measure Asian-American mental health. Across the Pacific, a survey by the Hong Kong College of Psychiatrists found that only 345 working psychiatrists existed for Hong Kong’s population of 7 million – half the ideal ratio.
In Asian cultures, as long as your body is well, you are well. This bodily reverence is sometimes taken to extreme measures. Hooves, tails, and body parts are farmed from live animals for medicinal concoctions. Bear bile, used to treat liver and gallbladder conditions, is extracted from a permanent hole in bears’ abdomens. In addition to antelopes, turtles, and manta rays, the hunt for pangolin scales, rhinoceros horns, and tiger bones persists.
The rarer, the better. Although some of these animal parts truly have medicinal properties, effective ingredients are indiscernible from the hodgepodge – not to mention the material ethical implications. Treatments that are one-size-fits-all, such as at-home cupping and Tiger Balm, are worshipped as go-to solutions used in alarming frequency.
These treatments then beg the question, is the goal of Eastern Medicine to offer physical and mental health care, or provide ease of mind? Call it “holistic alternative,” call it “Placebo Effect,” one thing is for certain – Eastern medicine can’t replace direct mental health care.
Jenny Shay is a hip hop dancer, V4 rock climber, and Berkeley Haas School of Business graduate. She lives in the SF Bay Area with her husband and two cats, Apple and Pear.