Traditional Medicine

I found it interesting that Zone One had so many references to Asian culture because I don’t typically see that in English books (especially not ones I’m assigned to read for class). One major one that stood out to me is the reference to the “foreign” beverage that seems to be very popular among the sweepers/soldiers. While speaking about how the Chinatown area of lower Manhattan has been restricted specifically for military bases, Mark Spitz narrates: “There was a good word of mouth about the medicinal properties of an enigmatic foreign beverage, bright emerald cans of which were piled in formidable stacks in the kitchen” (Whitehead 37). Spitz here speaks about a “foreign” drink that is said to be “medicinal,” meaning beneficial to the body. A while before this passage, Spitz narrates that they are in a ”dumpling joint” in the Chinatown area; this plus Spitz’s description of the scenery, that there were “Chinese zodiac” prints on table mats placed under “glass tabletops,” clues me in that the restaurant they are is Chinese. Because I have a Chinese background, I’m familiar with dimsum restaurants. For large tables, there’s typically this large, glass lazy susan on which food is placed; I think the “glass tabletops” Spitz refers to are the lazy susans. All these clues make me think that, because they are in a Chinese location, the “foreign beverage” is likely of Chinese origin. This means that the beverage is very likely a type of traditional Chinese medicine.

The edible kind of traditional Chinese medicine most often takes the form of a beverage (soup or tea usually). Because Spitz describes it as a beverage, I originally thought it might be a variety of herbal tea, specifically 涼茶 (literally translated to “cool tea”). According to the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) World Foundation, Chinese medicine strongly incorporates the Yin and Yang theory into practice. The Yin and Yang theory centers on the idea of balance and harmony, meaning as long as the human body maintains an equilibrium of Yin and Yang energies, it will be healthy. Everything on Earth has a level of Yin and Yang energies. Within Chinese medicine, this concept is often applied to food; some foods have higher levels of Yin energy and some foods have more Yang energy. Food with higher levels of Yin energy are often described to be “cool(ing)” and food with higher levels of Yang energy are often called “hot.” Those who partake in Chinese traditional medicine believe that consuming too much Yang or Yin food will throw the body out of balance and make the body sick. This NextShark (a news source focused on covering Asian news) article says a western equivalent of the Yin/Yang food concept would be thinking of food as acidic and/or alkaline: certain foods are more acidic than others and consuming too much acidic food would make one sick. When a person has consumed too much Yang food (which includes food like fried chicken, spicy food, french fries, etc.), Chinese medicine practitioners would advise them to drink an herbal tea known as “cool tea.” This is the type of herbal tea that’s most commonly sold in cans, so I assumed at first that the sweepers in Zone One might’ve been drinking “cool tea.” However, Spitz also indicates that one of the major ingredients in the beverage is ginger: “The sweepers groaned and dislodged belches redolent of the mysterious Far East beverage, smudging the air with ginger” (Whitehead 38). I found this very interesting because ginger is considered a Yang (“hot”) food, and traditional medicine doesn’t typically have prepackaged, canned beverages that increase Yang levels. However, upon further research, I realized that this might have been deliberate. According to the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) World Foundation, Yang energy represents concepts such as the Sun, energy, and activity (as opposed to Yin which represents the Moon and rest/lethargy). If we consider this, it would make sense why the sweepers are drinking something with Yang energy: it promotes physical strength by encouraging energy and activity.

Aside from Zone One, we also saw traditional/folk (although not Chinese) medicine being used in Morrison’s Home. The specific moment we discussed in class was Cee’s last stage of treatment: “[Cee] was to be sun-smacked, which meant spending at least one hour a day with her legs spread open to the blazing sun. Each woman agreed that that embrace would rid her of any remaining womb sickness” (Morrison 124). Cee is described in the text to be “shocked and embarrassed” and, despite not wanting to, ends up doing it. Miss Ethel and the other women are largely implied to have used more herbal/traditional and non-clinical (meaning without the use of drugs) methods to heal Cee. One example would be the “sun-smacked” method described above; a second would be how Frank describes that Miss Ethel relied on the “calamus root” to heal Cee (Morrison 119). Despite using non-clinical methods, Cee still recovers; directly after the sun scene, Frank returns home to Cee cooking on the stove and notes “how healthy [Cee] looked—glowing skin, back straight, not hunched in discomfort” (Morrison 126). By including elements of traditional/folk medicine in their writing, both Morrison and Whitehead perhaps try to remind their readers of the non-mainstream methods of healing and the importance of not forgetting these methods (because as Cee’s recovery has shown us, they work).

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