Saturday, March 05, 2011

Dong Gwai Soup

I walked up the stairs of my house and unlocked the door. It swung open. Immediately a familiar, sickening odor swept over me. It was the smell of dong gwai, a medicinal soup that I drink every certain "time of the month." The smell made me sick to my stomach. I walked toward the kitchen, ready to face my fate.

My mother was occupied with preparing dinner. I said, "Hi, Ma wo hui lai le." (I'm home, mother.)

She still had her back turned to me. She said, "Kuai dian he tang kua liang le." (Drink your soup or it'll get cold.)


My mom is the most ignorant person in the world. And she's very traditional. She wants to do everything the old fashioned, Chinese way. During dinner, if one person is missing, nobody gets to eat. We're not allowed to lift or move the dishes of food off the table until everyone's done, because that's considered rude. And even though my mother knows I'm allergic to flower pollen, during the Chinese New Year she covers the house with flowers and I end up sneezing my brains out onto a tissue. Then there are the "lucky things" she buy, like the monthly case of fifty oranges - "because it brings us luck." I highly doubt a fruit will bring me any more fortune than a pencil sharpener can give me joy, but my mother was born and raised with these beliefs, and she plans on conserving them. I'm guess I'm OK with most of it, except for the "specialty fruits will bring good health and fortune" thing. And pretty much all that Eastern Medicine stuff.

When it comes to medicine, my mother will believe anything an Eastern doctor says. If any Eastern doctor told her to slaughter a pig under a full moon and stuff cow dung into it, promising her that any person who ate it would be immune to all cancers, I would have pork that night. If a Western doctor recommended Flonase or Claritin for my allergies, my mother would instead drag me kicking and screaming to the nearest Chinese herbalist. All my doctor appointments at clinics and hospitals are either close to or in Chinatown.

I hate seeing Eastern doctors. It's not because I'm afraid of them; it's because they are so fake. All the doctors do is look at my face, take my pulse, prescribe locust soup, and tell me I'm going to feel better in a few months when the allergy season is over. But out of respect for my countrymen I don't call it fake.

A few years back, I sprained my finger and my mom took me to an Eastern doctor. As usual, they asked me questions that were completely irrelevant to my condition, like "So how many times do you use the bathroom a day?" I sprained my finger, and they asked me how often I used the bathroom? I left the office with a week's supply of tree bark and a bottle of brown rubbing oil. I spent the following two weeks with a swollen middle finger that I couldn't bend.

I know that my mother means well, but sometimes it's ridiculous. I've been prescribed the most bizarre things, such as a root that tastes horribly bitter, and the ever-so-popular tree bark.

When one walks into any Eastern medicine store, the first things that one sees are the giant shark fins, usually hung on the wall like some prestigious trophy. Then there are hundreds of abalones packed into jars, which sit right next to the jars of seahorses. There are always antlers (from God knows what kind of animal) hung over the counter. Usually there are things piled in big barrels which smell exactly the way they look: disgusting. Sometimes I say to myself, "There must be some kind of law against this sort of practice."

Everything in these shops is done the old-fashioned way. The measuring, weighing - and sometimes even the calculating - are done the same way my ancestors did it. Believe it or not, one time my mother and I were about to pay for some medicine and as we put our purchases on the counter, the ancient-looking man took out abacus from behind the counter and started clicking away. I thought, My goodness, I can't believe we're not paying this guy with livestock.

Besides, Western medicine is very easy to take - they invented the pill. And you get to choose a flavor, like cherry or grape - a lot tastier. In Eastern medicine, you're lucky if you get to drink a pound of black thingy instead of green thingy. But because this is the old-fashioned, Chinese way of medicine, and what my mother was taught, this is what I have to put up with. It's all about tradition.

My family is a lot like any typical first-generation family; there is a gap between my belief and my mother's. We just don't think the same way. But I do respect what my mother believes in.

Through the years, I have learned to tolerate her absurd belief in strict tradition and Eastern medicine, even though I've never enjoyed or really appreciated it myself. I just grin and bear it. Maybe I'm over exaggerating, it's not really as bad as it seems. Possibly some day I'll even realize the importance of keeping traditions. But the most important thing is keeping this bond between me and my mother strong.


She pointed toward the bowl of soup on the kitchen counter. This was the moment I'd feared, but I had it coming for getting home so early. I walked to the counter, where my fate awaited. The soup was as black as could be. I brought it to my face and thought, "Maybe if I drink this really quickly I won't be able to taste any of it." I downed the whole bowl in one gulp. I felt myself make a disgusted face. But it wasn't as bad as I'd thought it would be. At least it didn't kill me.

I turned to my mom and asked, "Ay, what's for dinner?"

- excerpted from Home Wasn't Built In A Day. The author of this piece, Ellen Gong, was a student at the Galileo Academy of Science and Technology in San Francisco when this was written. Ellen was born and raised in San Francisco and, at the time of writing, wanted to grow up to be the future owner of a McDonald's or a Niketown. She described herself as the ultimate consumer.


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