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The Doctor Is In

I remember the medicine wafting through the apartment–a distinct scent, a heavy, earthy, musky odor that smelled like bark, dirt and dampened roots. The minute the pot would go on, I would retreat to my room where I paced back and forth, in anticipation of a stand-off with my mother.

When I was younger, around eight or nine years old, I used to tag along with my mother to the Chinese herbalist in Manhattan’s Chinatown. We lived in Queens, but my mother would bring me along on these weekend trips with her, so we could get a “children’s tonic” from the medicine man. The old Chinese doctor would fill up plastic satchels with different ingredients, shuffling from one drawer to the next without a word. He spoke no Korean, and my mom spoke no Chinese. But he would always have a concoction ready at my mom’s request. Often they were tonics for children aimed to boost the immune system.

At home, she would pour the “prescription” into a clay pot where it would boil for what it seemed an eternity. I remember the medicine wafting through the apartment–a distinct scent, a heavy, earthy, musky odor that smelled like bark, dirt and dampened roots. The minute the pot would go on, I would retreat to my room where I paced back and forth, in anticipation of a stand-off with my mother. After screaming and crying, I would eventually succumb and drink this black, bitter liquid. Some of it I could not escape drinking but the other half, I would pretend to gulp then run to my room, open the window and spit it out, watching happily as the potion drip down the red fire escape to the bottom of the back alleyway.

I was young then.

When I got older, I learned that my mother, who had three miscarriages before she had me in her mid-40s, turned to Eastern medicine. I still saw a Western doctor at the hospital for treatment regularly, but we supplemented those visits to Chinatown for tonics. Though I can’t say I use Chinese medicine or know much about it, I came around to the idea that something developed for thousands of years couldn’t be all that bad. I do think that Eastern medicine has personally helped me, despite not knowing much of the science behind it. One family trip to Los Angeles, when I was thirteen, I learned that my parents booked one of the top acupuncturists to treat my asthma and allergies. For their efforts, they got a sulky teenager who wore only black and wanted to read Stephen King the entire trip (even the scenic drive through the Redwoods). To put it mildly, I was not thrilled to be prodded with needles on the face and hands and back, but it was pretty clear that afterwards my symptoms improved.

I wanted to reexamine my fear and aversion of Chinese medicine so I paid a visit to Regen Acupuncture in Flushing, where I met Taehoon Kim. I expected someone a lot older but Kim is a Chinese herbalist and acupuncturist in his 30s. Kim, who is Korean, also had been brought up going to Chinese herbalists when he was growing up in Queens. (We also quickly learned that we attended the same high school, and he was in the grade below me.) Kim’s interest in studying herbal medicine only deepened after graduating from the East Asian Studies program at NYU, and though it may be initially thought to be unique to find an ethnically Korean Chinese herbalist, it’s not that much of stretch. Koreans had adopted herbal medicinal practices from the Chinese around the 4th or 5th century, and have been practicing han yak. “The root is Chinese but Koreans like to call it ‘traditional Korean medicine,’” Kim says.

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Dr. Taehoon Kim in his office in Flushing. Photo by Susan M. Lee.

I asked him about one supplement I was following because I couldn’t quite believe what I read: it is a fungus that attacks caterpillars and begins to eat away at them from the inside until they emerge from their head, which sounded worse than any ‘Alien,’ movie. The end is essentially a mummified caterpillar: the fungus is supposed to be an aphrodisiac and is said to support lung health. Rare in the wild, a pound of it costs nearly up $8,000 to $10,000 and is reportedly the most expensive fungi in the world. I went into one Flushing store and the fungus was being sold for $480. Some cultivated cordyceps, I learned, are cheaper than the wild ones.

Kim explained that the cordyceps is just one new trend of several that come in and out of vogue. “If it’s something that the media talks about, I get inquiries. People ask me whether I can sell them this particular herb.” He’s gotten calls about leigong teng, “thunder vine,” after a clinical study suggests that it may improve arthritis symptoms. Another recent patient inquired about yinyang huo, or “horny goat weed” for increased libido. But he cautions that it’s not one single herb you take. “It’s a combination of a bunch of herbs that deal with a person’s constitution, their history, the side effects an herb can have,” he said.

Kim told me the philosophy behind Chinese medicine is something like this: “A formula has a like a king herb—the main herb that has a side effect—and then you have the deputies that assist the king herb to do the desired effect. It’s a hierarchical order. Then you have the assistants that address the side effects of the herbs that came before,” Kim said. The practice was originally derived from Taoism and was reportedly motivated by the quest for royalty to find the herbs that would lead to immortality. Along the way these early herb specialists found therapies along the way. Though the oldest known extant Chinese medicinal work is the Neijing, written around the 1000 B.C.E., it was the Shennong Ben Cao Jing, or “The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica,” one of the most important and oldest works written around the first century that was really the first herbal text. It includes 365 medicinal substances, how to procure them and where to find them. Shennong supposedly tested out herbs–even toxic ones—to compile his master work.

I made one last stop to another doctor. Xiao-Hua Shu, 60, from the Szechuan region, who looked a lot more like the Chinese herbalist of my youth. His practice, Academy of Chinese Medicine and Qigong, was in a cramped space in an office building shared with lawyer offices and travel agencies. His shop was filled with plastic jars and drawers and acupuncture tables. He gave me the last word on the trendy fungus: “If the price too high and the function not strong” it’s no good. Shu has been practicing Chinese medicine for He gave me his card says, which says he is a professor of Qigong medicine, member of the Institute of Herbs, and an inventor. “Please come back,” he said as I was leaving. In my mind, and to my surprise, I thought I just might.