Organic advocate Liora Pearlman is the founder of the Yahoo group Beijing Organic Consumer Society (BOCA). Over the past six years she has explored, researched and practiced a natural, chemical-free lifestyle. Mother to Rachel (6), Yaakov (4) and Etel (13 months), Pearlman recently placed her belief in natural therapies to the ultimate test. Her youngest child was diagnosed with Down syndrome, and Pearlman is convinced that for every chemical treatment available to Etel, there is a safer, more natural alternative. We caught up with this passionate and sometimes controversial member of the Beijing community to find out what it’s like to lead an alternative life.
When did you develop your interest in natural living?
I wasn’t raised with homeopathy or anything "freaky" like that. The whole beginning of getting into natural living was my baby. When [Rachel] was born in Shanghai, I had a typical hospital birth and everything was fine at first. But everything changed after the [vaccination]shots. The worst one was at 2 months old, she just screamed and screamed for about eight full months. I had no ayi and no help; I was going to doctors asking, "What’s going on?" Doctor after doctor told me it was my fault: I was holding her too much; I was carrying her too much. Turns out she had an immune system disorder. My opinion about things began to change slowly over time. A big part of that was meeting doctors who totally discounted what I was going through. I was losing faith in the institutions I grew up to respect.
What inspired you to set up BOCA?
I posted an opinion on [Beijing Café, an online Yahoo group] about natural products and not supporting P&G and certain corporations. It got people talking and my comments were put on the moderator list from then on. So my husband suggested I start my own group. People were always contacting me about my list of organic suppliers, so I used it as a hook to get people to join.
Do you want to achieve anything specific with BOCA?
No. People tell me I should start a store or a business, but I’m just a mom who’s into natural stuff, who wants to help people. I’m not here to make money. [BOCA] is for enlightenment, to aid people in their research.
Your ideas can come across as a little extreme to some people.
Some of my ideas might seem bizarre, but I try to think back to what my frame of my mind was when I first came to China. Some people aren’t ready to hear information, and people are at different stages. There’s a learning curve. If you’ve never heard about Cosmeticsdatabase.com, look up your favorite soap. You’ll be freaked out about what’s in Dove! Once people chip away at what they thought they believed, then they can really make decisions that are empowering. It’s also a personal identity statement. I’m going to take control of my life, of my children, and make sure as little of the bad stuff gets into them as possible.
How do you reconcile living in a rather polluted environment and claiming to live an organic lifestyle?
I don’t fool myself. We’re in a place where my husband can retire a few years earlier and it’s temporary. It’s a bad coincidence that we had these opportunities [in Beijing]when our kids were so young. We have IQ Air filters; we’re diligent about using them. We got IQ Air filters for their school and got the school to enforce an air pollution policy. We’ve been active in our community and keeping our kids as safe as possible.
How do you find the time to be so active in the community and look after your three children at the same time?
Anything I do online I can do in five minute bursts, but it can always wait until tomorrow. Now with Etel, there’s therapies and specialist appointments. I spend a fair amount of time with her. People come to me with various problems and I’m not a doctor but I do enjoy researching. I like learning, I like helping people.
Has having a baby with Down syndrome changed your views on natural medicine?
Well, I’ve learned a lot. The first thing I realised was "Wow, not all people are the same." There’s a range of subtlety in the human condition that I hadn’t fully realized before. And now there’s a person in my life with a full extra chromosome. Brain cells in Down syndrome people don’t regenerate easily. You want to boost their antioxidants and keep those brain cells from dying as fast. One way to do that is to use Prozac, or you can use turmeric. It actually makes those brain cells go just a little bit farther. I also started using ginkgo biloba a few weeks ago with Etel [to assist the neurone transmitters in her brain].
Starting an organic lifestyle can seem daunting to some people.
I had to see information about pesticides again and again before I decided to go organic. I had a friend who used an organic farm and eventually I said, "OK, give me the information, I’m going to sign up." It just took enough information to push me outside my comfort zone.
How accessible is an organic lifestyle to Beijing families?
There are different facets to organic. There’s the food facet and these days it’s very accessible – there’s a list of suppliers on BOCA. Personally I like Organic Farm and Buddhist Farm. It’s harder to go chemical-free and it is pricey. There’s a local company called Organic Earth and it’s owned by a Canadian. People who receive their catalogues can have shipments delivered to their house. I can’t leave World Health Store out of the mix; they have their own line of cold-crafted soaps. For lotions, I use coconut oil or shea butter. I use soap nuts and baking soda to wash clothes. I would warn people to stay away from organizations who call themselves natural; it’s a huge gimmick right now in China. For everything you have in your life that’s chemical, there’s a natural alternative.
Ideally we’d like to be in a healthier environment. Any city will have cell phone radiation and things beyond just chemicals and air pollution to think of. Ideally we’d like to be in a thatched hut on a beach somewhere but that’s not realistic at the moment. For now, we’re in Beijing and we don’t have any hard plans. But we are wondering what’s in store.