Ancient Chinese Seeclet…I Just Don’t Get It

There is a very mature adult, deep inside my head, who insists on keeping my mouth out of trouble.  Some might consider it my Conscience, some might consider it the Voice of God, but I just see it just as a very little person.  Sometimes this little person has a big voice and sometimes a gentle whisper is all I need to close my mouth and smile.  Today, my little inner person screamed herself hoarse, stopping me from outright ridiculing a nice friend of mine.  Unfortunately, now that the little person has laryngitis, there’s a party going on in my head, and my mouth wants to dance on the speakers.  What I am about to write will surely offend many, but I just cannot help myself.

 

I was enjoying coffee with a visiting friend, this morning (we shall call her Betty), when her carpool partner joined us.  He is also a friend, and a co-worker of my husband.  Very nice man, about as whitebread as I can imagine a Canadian, with Scandinavian roots.  These roots are so strong, he named one of his sons Eric the Red (okay, it isn’t Eric the Red in real life, but a name so close, he might as well have named him Viking Boy).  I shall call this Scanadian Man Bob, to protect the innocent.  We all started discussing their visit to Jasper; my husband had rolled out the red carpet for them, catering all their meetings and hosting feasts at night.  Our Food and Beverage Team went above and beyond, creating drool-worthy meals.  Bob and Betty recalled the yummy food with closed eyes and dreamy voices.  But then, Bob said, “It was all so heavenly, but with my food sensitivities, you know, I really paid for it last night and today.”  I raised my eyebrows in concern and asked, “Food sensitivities?” And he said, “OH, nono, nothing like Celiac or allergies.  But you know mixing the hot foods and the cold foods, and you know, the hot kinds of foods just set me off, and I couldn’t sleep…”

 

This whole time, my eyebrows are still raised, and my jaw is slowly dropping open, as I realize that this tall white Canadian man is describing ancient Chinese food personalities.  I discretely brought my hand up to my chin to shut it quietly, as Bob proceeded to launch into his special relationship with his food.  He was very quick to point out that Chef had created such amazing delicacies, that he couldn’t resist eating it all.  But the discomfort he described afterwards, made it sound like there was a battle of the food divas in his tummy.  Eventually, we changed the subject, and started talking about little Eric the Red, and my daughter the Assassin – they are growing nicely and are poised to take over the world.

 

Long after Betty and Bob headed home, I puzzled over Bob’s latest diet trend. I pondered over this obsession people have with creating meaning from the unknown and manipulating things they just don’t understand.  Dying of the Black Plague and the monarchy has left you starving?  God will save you and punish the rich; you just have to pray pray pray, and give all your money to those less fortunate than yourself.  Don’t want to catch a cold?  Make sure you wear your cozy slippers so you don’t catch cold through the soles of your feet. Oh, and God Forbid you go outside with wet hair – you will catch pneumonia!  Well, if you do, we’ll just throw some leeches on you – the bloodletting will balance your humors…  

 

Granted, Asians are an old enough race that there are some tried and true remedies that even science has accepted.  But if I mention powdered bear gall bladders as a remedy for male impotence, all of you should roll your eyeballs along with me.  Some things are completely ridiculous.  

 

Asians aren’t the only ones with a corner on the Crazy Market.  My husband’s family is quite earthy-crunchy when it comes to medicines.  Rather than head to the doctor when coughing up green phlegm, they will try 42 different herbs and potions, all distilled into small vials of alcohol.  My sister-in-law came to visit us when we lived in California, and I wondered why her giant purse clinked when she moved.  It turns out she took a minimum of 6 different potions every hour – several drops of each.  And she said she was very nervous being in America so she also guzzled Burt’s Rescue Remedy too.  I mentally calculated the amount of alcohol in all her potions by the end of the day, and realized that it all seemed to work for her because it was the equivalent of several stiff drinks.  Well, DUH, I could have given you that prescription.  And years ago, I knew a man who went through a very painful cleanse just because his meditating yogi wife told him he would lose 30 lbs in intestinal blockage alone.  After a week of lemon juice and hot pepper water, I’m thinking he was not a fan of hot foods.  

 

So let’s get back to this hot foods cold foods thing (or the Yin and the Yang foods, as some put it).  According to Wikipedia (my main source for Asian information, as my Chinese mother is currently rolling over in her grave, filled with shame for her half-breed ignorant daughter), “Chinese food or Nutrition therapy, is a modality of traditional Chinese medicine. Central to this belief system is the idea that certain foods have a “hot” or heat-inducing quality while others have a “cold” or chilling effect on the body and its organs and fluids. An imbalance of this “heat” and “cold” is said to increase susceptibility to sickness or to directly cause disease itself. Such an imbalance is not necessarily related to the subjective feeling of being hot (tending toward sweating) or cold (tending toward shivering).

As an example, if one had a cold, or felt he was about to get a cold, he would not want to eat any “cold” foods such as a lemon, melon or cucumber. If one had a so-called “hot” disease, like Eczema, then he would not want to eat “hot” foods such as garlic, onions, or chocolate lest the “hot” disease is worsened. Indeed, it is thought by some that these “hot” or “cold” properties of foods are so intense that merely the eating of too many of one or another can actually cause diseases. For example, the eating of too many “hot” foods like chili peppers or lobster could cause a rash, or the eating of too many “cold” foods such as watermelon, or seaweed could cause one to develop stomach pain or diarrhea. In this way, this health system is in direct opposition to evidence-based medicine and the germ theory of disease (where microbes are described as the cause of many disease states).”  The article goes on to list different foods in a temperature table, showing the supposed side effects of consuming too much…for instance, my over-consumption of foie gras and other duck/goose related products, should give me hemorrhoids.  Well well well, my bottom is as smooth as the proverbial baby’s bottom. I am a walking miracle, then eh?   And how convenient for them that beer is listed as a Yin food, to counteract the dry fire effects of the Yang foods like chili peppers.  Who makes up this shit? Could it be that instead of the explanation for diarrhea after eating too much watermelon is NOT because it too much of a “cold” or Yin food, but because you are a PIG and too much fruit will give you the runs?  It’s all sugar and water, people!

So there you have it.  I am in turmoil.  The Chinese half of me is horrified that I have betrayed my roots and shamed my ancestors.  I actually flinch when I see movement in the corner of my eye, thinking it’s my mom reaching out from the grave to smack me upside my head.  When I do, the American half of me shakes her head and laughs.  SCIENCE.  We have SCIENCE to prove or disprove most of this. I will tell you what we do know.  Yes, there are chemicals in many herbal tinctures that are very helpful.  Yes, too much watermelon will give you the runs.  Yes, I take herbal supplements to help me with PMS, Hashimoto’s, and my immune system.  These herbal supplements have scientifically proven chemicals and properties that do more good than harm if taken in moderation.  But damned if I know whether or not my Evening Primrose Oil is a Yin or a Yang food.  Once again, I demonstrate that I am the Worst Chinese Person Ever, and that my inner white chick has the tiniest brain ever.  I just can’t open it up to let in this “food therapy.”  My idea of food therapy is a pan-seared slice of foie gras, with a few figs and a baguette.  Put that Yin my tummy, and Yang I’m happy! 

Tiger for Dinner and Snakes at the Supper Table

When I was in Grade 4, my father was posted to the American Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.  Coming from Moscow and winters so cold our spitballs would freeze into deadly bullets, it was quite a shock to find ourselves in the tropics.  Gone were the roly poly Babushkas selling the freshest baked bread.  They were replaced by riots between races, blazing hot sun, and durian (fruit that smells like the Dead).  In Moscow, we lived in an apartment, and the closest we came to wild animals were the little tadpoles that my big sister brought home from a pond she explored on a school fieldtrip to the country.  The tadpoles grew up and the tiny baby frogs hopped out of the fish tank and disappeared, only to be discovered weeks later behind the couches; desiccated little mummies of despair.  In Malaysia, there was more animal life than we were prepared to handle.

The embassy gave us a lovely large home to live in, with a housekeeper (amah, who we always called Ayii) and a gardener.  Marble floors downstairs, wooden parquet upstairs.  The entire living room downstairs could open up onto our marble patio with sliding doors the length of the room.  Not that we ever did that. You see, there were snakes.  Not just any snakes; poisonous snakes.  Snakes that you see in horror movies — 6 foot cobras just taking strolls through our garden.  Our gardener was a very large Indian man named Gabon.  He was a giant, but he was gentle; so gentle that his religion forbade the killing of any living beings.  So these cobras would be throwing a party in the back yard, and my mom would call out, “Gabon!  Please kill the cobra over there! “And he would smile at her, nod his head, then pick up the cobra by the tail and fling it over the garden hedge.  For all I know, it could have been the same damn cobra coming back into our yard day after day, with Gabon throwing it over the hedge over and over again.

When Gabon was off, my mom would take matters into her own hands.  She’d be talking on the phone with my dad in the middle of the day, gazing out on the patio, see a snake slithering in the grass, say, “excuse me, Dave, I’ll be right back,” put down the phone, go upstairs and get my father’s gun that was hanging on the bedpost (we’ll talk about my dad later), come back downstairs, pick up the phone and say, “what were you saying?” while she took aim and shot at the snake.  It got to where I didn’t even look up from my book at the sound of gunfire.  Just another day at the Hess Residence. 

The snakes seemed to live on the philosophy that what was theirs was theirs, and what was ours was theirs too.  We would be eating dinner, hear a soft “plop” sound of something falling out of the honking big plants my mom insisted on displaying all over our house, someone would yell, “SNAKE” and we’d all jump on top of our huge round dining table, screaming for Ayii to come kill the snake with a broom. 

And it didn’t end with our house.  We lived about 30 minutes from our school, the International School of Kuala Lumpur.  It was 30 minutes if you walked on the road with the other civilized people.  Someone in my family came up with the Brilliant Plan to send my sisters and me through a local rubber tree plantation as a shortcut.  Yes, the walk would take only 15 minutes.  But those would be 15 minutes of weaving around smelly rubber trees with sticky sap oozing into grimy harvesting cups, slapping ourselves silly through swarms of malaria-ridden mosquitoes, and shuffling through underbrush SEETHING with poisonous snakes.  Forget about the modern worries of pedophiles and serial killers that could be lurking in jungles, lying in wait for 3 tasty little girls walking to school…that never crossed anyone’s mind in 1978. 

My sisters and I did our best to protest this dangerous idea: why couldn’t we ever be like other normal kids and have our parents drive us to school???  My father’s response was, “You are not normal, nor will you ever be.”  This sentence went on to forge the 3 of us girls into the absolute raving lunatics we are today.  My mom’s response was, “LOOK!  I found these perfect little snakebite kits.  They have a razorblade and a little rubber suction cup, and directions showing you how to slice open your snake bite and suck out the venom.  Also, here are 3 large wooden walking sticks.  Beat the bushes – that will scare away the snakes.”  Well, there you go.  Problem solved.

15 minutes of terror and dozens of mosquito bites every morning, followed by 15 minutes of terror and more mosquito bites in the afternoons.  The moments when we would burst out of the jungle onto our school soccer field felt like we had reached the Promised Land.  Going home, the jungle would spit us out onto a paved road, and we would silently say a prayer of thanks for one more journey survived.  We knew that the rest of the walk to the house would be safe.

Well, relatively safe.  There was a large Monitor lizard that lived in the coconut trees in the grassy area between our house and the main road.  When the herds of sacred cows were grazing there, he kept to the treetops.  Actually, when the sacred cows were there, we all had to steer clear.  We were forbidden to shoo them away.  We were forbidden to even talk to them disrespectfully – after all, any one of them could have been somebody’s grandma or grandpa, according to the Hindus.  They just wandered all around the city, pooping and eating wherever they pleased.  ANYWAY, the monitor lizard must have been resentful of his house arrest and one day came running towards my big sister like he wanted to eat her for dinner.  This thing was at least 5 feet long, big and green, and his mouth was open as he aimed for her.  Of course we all screamed (and when Hess Girls scream, we make a sonic boom), so he veered off course right before he hit her, and ran up another coconut tree.  The 3 of us shakily wobbled our way home, grateful for the opportunity to live to see another day.

The wildlife was out to get us, the heat and humidity were out to get us, and at times it seemed our own mother was out to get us.  She had some weird ideas.  First of all, the 3 of us girls came to that country with waist-length beautiful hair.  The first thing my mother does is sit us down, put bowls on our heads, and cut off all of it.  I kid you not.  And these were not just haircuts, they were butchering.  She kept muttering, “Oh, that’s crooked.”  Snip snip.  20 minutes later my hair was above my ears, and it was STILL crooked.  A truly awesome look for the first day of school as the fat new kid.  One night, she sat us all down at the dining table and said she had a surprise for dinner.  She told us we had to close our eyes and take a bite.  We were all wary of this.  My parents used to tell us to do that every time they wanted us to try things like sheep’s’ brains and pig intestines, “just try it first and THEN we will tell you what it is!” – With evil grins on their faces.  Anyway, we were gullible (still are) and took big bites and chewed.  And chewed.  Funky meat, tasting slightly ammonia-like…”what is this, Mom?” (even my dad didn’t know).  Her bright grin and the word, “TIGER!” shocked the hell out of us.  Apparently our amah’s family had hunted a tiger (yeah yeah, I know – illegal, horrible, etc) and had presented my mom with some of the meat.  It was a great honor.  However, as my big sister and my dad pointed out, it was also full of feline parasites so we should all “SPIT IT OUT SPIT IT OUT!”  That was another moment when I wondered, “Why can’t I just have a normal family?”

One night our house was robbed while we were sleeping.  The robbers left knives next to my little sister’s bed.  The very next day, while my dad rigged the house with an advanced alarm system, my mom went to the local SPCA and came home with 7 dogs.  SEVEN, yes SEVEN dogs.  Aw, cute, you say?  Guess whose job it was to be the family pooper scooper?  Sue Lin Freaking Hess.  And when I pointed out that I was in danger from snakes in the garden while I was doing my vile job, guess what my mommy did for me?  She came home with 5 full-grown geese.  Not just any geese.  Attack geese.  But did they attack snakes?  No, they attacked fat little girls with crooked haircuts.       

Malaysia was not all terror-filled and deadly.  Well, other than that time when there was a riot and people were chopping each other’s heads off with machetes and we were forbidden to leave our house for days…ummm, where was I?  Oh yes.  There were rambutans – a heavenly sweet juicy fruit that resembled furry lychee.  And there were gentle orangutans.  And ditches next to the roads that were filled with gloriously colored guppies – the kind of guppies that you would pay hundreds of dollars for from fancy breeders in pet stores in North America. We just scooped them up in our hands and ran all the way home to plop them into our fish tanks.  And there was Christmas in the Raffles Hotel in Singapore (the cleanest place on earth), and once a week there was Little House on the Prairie on our tiny little black and white television in our kitchen; commercial-free except for the 5 o’clock Muslim prayer that we would happily sing along to, having no clue as to the meaning of the words. 

For one hour a week, I could pretend I was Laura Ingalls Wilder, living far far away from the poisonous snakes and the dreadful heat, living in the kind of wilderness where the only wild animals were bears and wolves and coyotes and HEEEYYYYYYY, I guess you can call me Laura, y’all.

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